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Nicolas Jaar - Space is Only Noise

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Artist: Nicolas Jaar

Album: Space is Only Noise

Label: Circus Company

Review date: May. 18, 2011

In the social media era, personal brands are currency. From Carles on down, everybody knows that. If some online frenemy is stepping on your taste’s toes, something else is easy to cop (i.e., “Shell art is over!”). In the ‘90s, “poser” would have applied to this kind of encroachment, but such absolutes are one of the things that has failed to make a comeback. These days, nobody wants a band to be his or her life. How about, “My curatorial skills could be your life”? When musicians can make music on the cheap and build audiences on Internet buzz, curators likewise hedge their bets by casting their nets wide and not really investigating what turns up. Diversifying your cultural portfolio is a key skill to feeling like your taste is relevant. So, as righteously as people repudiate “hipster,” it’s a resilient concept — a lifestyle choice capable of endless mutation.

That’s a lot of argument. But Nicolas Jaar’s debut album, Space Is Only Noise, raises these issues because it makes a point of disengaging from that economy — the one that would make it seem like there was something at stake in liking or disliking this album.

As you listen, it becomes clear that the Space of the title is not interplanetary, but sonic. There are the long stretches where comparatively little happens. Songs alternate with sketches, dusty samples coexist with antiseptic bass synths. If you mistakenly listened to this album thinking it was a mix, it would sound like one long wind-up. This is an unTumblable artifact: an album that takes its whole length to make its point. Along the way, Jaar crosses terrain staked out by artists ranging from Thomas Köner to DJ Premier. That balance between soul and punch and landscape-loving ambience is what moves the album just beyond most of its contemporaries. The almost title track, “Space Is Only Noise If You Can See,” is the catchiest thing here, but Jaar’s singing is an acquired taste — he physically pitches his voice down, giving it the stiffness of someone trying to age himself. But the blunt, mumbly delivery plays nicely with what sounds like a Space Echo, and it’s better suited to the music than the fake-German English of The Juan MacLean’s singing. We are maybe in Matthew Dear territory.

As you may already know, Jaar is still a student at Brown University in Rhode Island. The low-hanging fruit would be an argument that the album’s linear, consistent flow (a dozen listens in, I can only recall two discrete songs) echoes essay form. It’s true that Jaar works a single thought out at a time, and that each successive idea builds on what preceded it, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Jaar has a better grasp on the album form than many of his elders. He distributes energy sparingly, so the euphoric moments — like the double-time hi-hats on “Space Is Only Noise If You Can See” — are particularly exciting. Sonically and conceptually, it’s a relaxed and spacious album at a time when music, and especially the genres Jaar is affiliated with, tends to be very loud and saturated.

When it comes to the album’s reception on the Web, though, Space is also disorienting. There are no signposts to reassure listeners that they understand what’s going down or that it’s good for any specific reason. So much dance music — especially techno, but even ambient — feels so filled with noise. Interlocking patterns, tracks stacked without respite. That’s kind of the point when it comes to techno — submitting to a solid brick of frequencies, like being submerged into a breathable liquid, is a unique and demanding experience. The stuff of which Space is made is organic — water, air, an occasional island. This makes it feel, oddly enough, like a throwback to a different kind of listening, back when aural clarity was kind of an understood goal. We do a lot more listening now than we did 20 years ago, and we often rely on a noise floor to help us determine what something means — fidelity is a main character, announcing what to hear and establishing immediate context. Space seems to be projecting itself into a future that isn’t so intent on jumping to conclusions.

Jaar’s high-fidelity approach almost sounds dated. It’s strange when silence is so transparent. Yet I don’t think the point of making something that sounds clear is an attempt to avoid nostalgia. Jaar’s idea of dance music may have more in common with The KLF, circa Chill Out, than with BNJMN, but he puts more emphasis on originality than many of his peers. The blank spaces basically urge the listener to figure out whether they like what’s going on.

Jaar attempted something ambitious with this album — it stands apart, even if it never risks a whole lot. Space Is Only Noise is unique, but also a work of modesty and, for an album that samples French poetry and is rarely danceable, it’s unpretentious. I feel like I’ve set myself up for hyperbolic praise here, but I feel that Space Is Only Noise‘s most interesting quality is the fact that it’s difficult to tell whether it will sound as good as it does now at some point in the future. Will it become great? Will we realize it has been great all along? Or will its appeal fade away at some undetermined time? For now, we have every indication that keeping this around is a good idea. No pressure either way.

By Brandon Bussolini

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