Friday, May 13, 2011

Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise (2011)

(Circus Company)


Opening with the peaceful sound of sloshing water, children playing and a Leonard Cohen-like abstract narration, closing with an inverted revision of the same sounds, Chilean wunderkind Nicolas Jaar's debut album conceals much Wellesian peace and deception in its impressively rich textures. Presented as an electronic record but with much parlor trickery concealing just how much of the record is synthetic and how much is performed (Jaar is much more musician than DJ), Space Is Only Noise is the kind of album that renders genre a moot point. By the end of the first track, Jaar has already made a journey from pure ambient effects to gentle piano jazz; on "Colomb," a lonely faraway sound of distortion crumbles into the record's first actual beat, a morbidly slow one, while idly pretty processed vocals float aimlessly above. Jaar is a mood artist, but he doesn't make ambient music; he certainly doesn't make dance music, even though he is marketed as such. So what is this?

Maybe strictly because of the cover and title, I'm calling it "moon music." It has that faraway feeling that still hints at being an aspect of home. Take a close look at that cover art, and you discover you're seeing not a lunar surface photograph but nothing more or less than sandy earth, the lunar module a stroller. It's a handy metaphor for the album's magic; it's far more familiar than we intuitively grasp.

Jaar's peculiar gift is in finding the spaciousness and weird in what amounts to a soft -- if slightly druggy - aural comfort. Never background music, the record demands attention and earns it, and it is consistently inviting and entertaining, whether evoking a thumbnail sketch of disco or periodically allowing an organic guitar line to breathe. Through enormous production gifts, he captures a skewed and cohesive variance on a wide stylistic palette; the pleasure is immense and shockingly immediate -- far more so than the work of the more celebrated James Blake.

Space Is Only Noise is equally memorable as an entity, in an age when actual advancement of the album as an artform is (for the most part justifiably) rare. The Nouvelle Vague cool distance of "Sunflower' sits undisruptively alongside the mindbending vocal tics of "Keep Me There," an evocation of Medulla and doo wop that mercifully never moves past its smart minimalism. Everything here, even the high-pitched Mickey Mouse vocal tracks that see the album out (including a semi-clone of Patti Smith's "Birdland"), rises from the same powerfully slow heartbeat, its tribal rhythms, crawling pace, and hints of paranoia fusing these disparate ideas into a seamless whole.

There are moments that leap out, all the same. "I Got a Woman" is, even more than its neighbors, an orgy of calmly alluring, careful but sensual noise, opening as sample-happy sex, closing as mysterious eurojazz. The robo-rollick "Problems with the Sun" offers utterly celebratory, elephantine dance, most addictive in the way its modest vocals echo and fall confusingly into one another. And then there's the title track, a thrillingly catchy pop tune buried under only a thin e-cloud veneer that recalls Wire in their period of "Eardrum Buzz" and "Kidney Bingos" unmitigated joy. Wire is just as informative of the fashion in which much of these tracks are just teasingly brief pleasurable blips that make their point and instantly move on, a welcome development (shared by Flying Lotus, among others) for the typical overextension of electronica.

You don't have to be a lamenter of modern music, which I am not, to concede that very little of what we hear today feels truly identifiably new; I'm too much of a pop guitar stalwart to believe newness is what finally matters about music. But Space Is Only Noise carries more wisps of the new than anything I've heard in some time. And what's most bracing about it is its sheer accessibility; along amongst the wave of dubstep and electro-jazz breakthroughs of these past few years, it holds that proto-legendary vibe of the rare electronic record that any pop fan, especially any alt-pop fan, will understand and love. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Dig Your Own Hole, Play, and Since I Left You -- it's a short list but a profound one, of records that soared far beyond their target audiences and became a part of more lives than their creators likely imagined possible. As at so many other points when techno and electronica almost became mainstream, never before with a recording this subtle and quirky, I find myself on hearing Space Is OnlY Noise engaging in an undetached cry of joy for the future. It deserves to be as a communal as it feels, so make that happen, please.

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