CD Reviews

Jason Lescalleet – Songs about nothing

August 29, 2012

2CD
Erstwhile

I should probably start by saying that as today’s double CD has been described repeatedly in internet circles as amongst the best albums released in a while, I potentially approach it differently to I might approach an album I had heard nothing about, by a musician who may be new to me. Its not that I am any more or less critical of the album in question merely to try and swim against the flow, rather that when your expectations are pushed high after reading the thoughts of others whose opinions you respect, you push an album harder. I should also point out that, contrary to most followers of this area of music I have never been as big a fan of Jason Lescalleet’s music, enjoying some elements a great deal and others, such as the feeling of masculinity I often seem to take from his work, much less.

Lescalleet’s new double CD Songs about Nothing on the Erstwhile label at first seems to be two albums coupled together in one, garishly coloured gatefold sleeve. The design, and title pay tribute to Big Black’s much respected punk album Songs about Fucking. I don’t think the fact that I never enjoyed that album all that much either makes any difference here however, but the links go beyond the sleeve art. The first disc, made up of thirteen short pieces has a title itself. The Big Black album had a title for each side of the disc, namely Happy Otter and Sad Otter. The titles of the two discs here then are clever anagrams of those original titles.  So Trophy Tape opens with a tiny grab of what sounds like a radio drenched voice before launching into vicious streams of what sounds to me like digitally  enhanced feedback of some kind, but I am no expert on precisely how such sounds are generated. After just a couple of minutes of tinitus-testing assault and then a roughed up cloud of white noise however it all dissolves into a dramatically slowed down sample from Kraftwerk’s The Model. Given that a cover version of that song is also the second track on the Big Black album, it is probably not too much of a stretch to surmise that the other thirteen pieces on this double CD each refer back in some way to an album that obviously had a considerable influence on Lescalleet. The thirteen tracks on the first disc I would imagine refer to the thirteen that appeared on the original vinyl Big Black release, the fourteenth, that makes up the whole of the second disc Road Test, I would guess reflects the additional track added to the album when it came out later as a CD. Certainly there are references to be found in the track titles (Big Black’s Kitty Empire becomes The Power of Pussy for instance, as Ergot becomes Escargot). Puzzling out further references and how this album all fits together conceptually is then probably a lot of fun, and considerable credit is due to Lescalleet for making an album in such an innovative way, but I lack the required knowledge of the original record to be able to parse out many more links. Clearly though, there should be no escaping the firm links here. The inclusion of what I think are Jewish hymns at the start of the tenth piece, Friday night in a Catholic home refers back to the Big Black track Fish Fry for instance. I’m not sure if Lescalleet has ever aligned himself to a religion, but certainly one wonders if elements of this piece refer back to his childhood one way or another. Its as if the musician has taken the Big Black album as a starting point to find references to his own life, onto which he has built new music referring back to these guidelines.

Trophy Tape then contains thirteen all quite different pieces full of samples of one kind another mashed up, slowed down, merged into abstract noise and then joined together to form one flowing piece. What I like a lot about this album compared to some other work by Lescalleet, is that, opening salvo aside, it doesn’t ever slip into standard noise music territory. We are never really assaulted by volume, only by a constantly changing stream of information. The sense of masculinity I have sensed and felt uncomfortable with before, the force, the sensation of testosterone overload is also mostly missing. There are clearly links in here to the composer’s life, childhood, family, maybe religion, just as there were on his album from a few years back The Pilgrim, which was a direct response to the death of his father. If that album wore its heart on its sleeve however, this one encodes it in little mysteries and word games, but the personal content is clearly there.

Road Test then also contains samples and other bits and pieces. There are helicopters and birdsong, some kind of (I think) Jewish prayer, wind sounds and a whole lot more that all feel a bit awkward together, as if crowbarred into place for a reason, and doubtless there are good reasons that link back to the album’s themes. Reading Brian’s take on the album the track also contains considerable references to Terry Riley’s You’re no good composition, a reference I didn’t spot at first. This presumably links to the Big Black track added to the CD, named He’s a whore, and certainly to the disc’s unusual ending, as a slowed down version of the Depeche Mode song It’s no good, taken from what is probably that group’s worst album dating from 1997. Looking up the track online however, I can only add that it sounds a lot better crawling along at this speed. Its anyone’s guess what all of this refers to, perhaps some degree of self-depreciative evaluation, but I really don’t have a clue, and given the detailed ciphers of the first disc I am sure there is plenty in there I am missing.

Songs about Nothing then, amusingly, probably isn’t about nothing. Musically I have to say that it sits in an area that normally, generally speaking I wouldn’t be that attracted to, as elongated samples, rhythmic elements, and the noisier parts aren’t really my cup of tea, but its actually really difficult to not like this album simply because of its very clever, creative means of construction. It is very clearly a work of great personal value to Lescalleet and an album that is really quite impressively unusual in the way it encodes so much in the structure of the album and its reflection back to an older release by other musicians that I would hazard a guess impacted a lot on the young Lescalleet. So, a bit like a really good, but really difficult crossword, this album is an immense joy to tussle with, wonder about and try and understand. Once the solutions to the conundrums become exhausted however, the end result is beautiful to admire for its complexity, but of less interest to me personally as something just to look at/listen to, which ultimately is probably a good thing, but I’d like to be able to do both.

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