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Amen Dunes - Through Donkey Jaw

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Artist: Amen Dunes

Album: Through Donkey Jaw

Label: Sacred Bones

Review date: Nov. 16, 2011

Amen Dunes - "Christopher"

Amen Dunes, the more or less solo project from Damon MacMahon, sits at the intersection of folk and drone, at intervals shaking off its torpor in short-hop flights to melody, but mostly shambling through shadowy atmospheres of reverb’d guitar, shaken percussion and distorted chants and intonations. Through Donkey Jaw, MacMahon’s second full-length, brings in more personnel than 2009’s DIA, with extra players (credited in the notes only with initials) taking up guitar, flute, bass and drums here. Yet it remains an intensely inward-looking, self-contained effort. You get the sense that MacMahon doesn’t really care whether you’re listening at all, never mind whether you like it.

Through Donkey Jaw wavers and flickers, its distorted echoes of guitar, keyboards and voice seeming sometimes to be the thing you’re meant to see, sometimes a scrim that hides the essence of the song. MacMahon’s voice, in particular, is hard to get a grip on, slurring and sliding and disappearing into fog-banks of fuzz. He sounds, at some points, a lot like Kurt Vile, at others distinctly Lou Reed-ish, but you can’t catch more than one line in five. The words, one hopes, are not the point.

And neither are the melodies, apparently. With a couple of exceptions (1960s garage-ish “Good Bad Dream,” folkily pristine “Sunday”), the tunes are anything but sticky. Most of the songs are sung in a monotone chant, the same note again and again in varying tones of anxiety or boredom. And even when something like a chorus emerges, say at the end of “Baba Yaga,” it is shrouded and clouded over, never overt, never obvious.

The main thing with Through Donkey Jaw is texture, a haunting, indeterminate mesh of sounds — usually electric guitar, sometimes keyboards, often shaken percussion — that coalesces around a dreaming, haunted mood. The primary colors vary — “Not a Slave” is “Venus In Furs” style Velvetiana, “Lower Mind” evokes acoustic Kurt Vile, “Baba Yaga,” the folkier elements of Michael Yonkers — but they are all smudged and strung out and attenuated to the point of dissolution. Even the more abrasive outings, nightmarish “Jill,” endless, static “For All,” are falling apart as you look at them. Decay is not just part of the sound. It is the sound. This is a boy in his bedroom fighting against entropy, dropping fragile observations about love into the roar of an abyss.

Still, there’s a static listlessness to many of these songs, a sense that they drone on for far longer than is really necessary. This lets up only late in the recording, on the second of two bonus CD tracks, with a 10-minute closer. “Tomorrow Never Knows” drones and wavers, yes, but it also pounds and punches and obliterates. It disintegrates and comes into being at the same time, and whether it is surrendering to chaos or bringing chaos to order is an open question.

Through Donkey Jaw is not an immediate pleasure. It songs take form only. The murk slowly changes from a barrier — something that obscures the songs — into an essential element of the sound. Temporary brightness, even melody, flashes through clouds and trails of indeterminacy. Give them time, and there’s a stealthy joy that rises out of the dust, if only momentarily before collapsing back into nothingness.

By Jennifer Kelly

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