I’m sure I’m not the only one who earmarks CDs for the change in seasons. When I lived in a state that was more like a dead ice moon with brief spots of sun (i.e., Michigan), I used to steel myself for winter by nervously stockpiling CD’s consonant with my winter mood. They had to be sparse, distant, but still beating back against the imprint of death that comprised September through March. Like maybe, for example, the way that the muffled sounds of a starving, close to cannibalism orchestra still playing under an avalanche would sound. Funky Porcini’s Fast Asleep would definitely make my list with its sub-artic jazz grooves and listless sonic drifting.
Fast Asleep begins amid a creeping vine of ambience on “What Are You Looking At” complete with a computerized voice announcing a nebulous but imminent apocalypse. It’s a cold, dark intro that sounds like the soundtrack for a collapsing star. From there it makes a breezy tempo climb into “The Big Sea” which spools in jazzy drums and hushed strings. If there’s a consistent vibe throughout out this record of considerable span, it’s one of sleepy delicacy. Which is why reviewing ambient albums can be so trying. Music so willfully unassuming often works its charms at levels far beneath the surface of listening. Upon the first several dozen run throughs, it’s easy to say “this is nice” and toss it in the stack of CD’s great for studying, reading, or tackling a sink full of dishes. But, in the interest of growing myself a set of Chia ethics for criticism, I spent serious time with this album, forcing my attention deficit ear onto every grain and note.
James Bradell, the man behind the moniker, has an easy touch this time out. His previous releases, including Hed Phone Sex Shadow and Love Pussycats & Carwrecks (the only two I’ve heard at any length) boomed with hip-hop swagger and jittering drum ‘n’ bass. They were excellent companion pieces to groups like Nightmares on Wax or Kruder & Dorfmeister. The compositions on Fast Asleep sound orchestral without sounding overstuffed. A recurring jazz undertow weaves in and out of the songs particularly the drums on many tracks that sound like you’ve stumbled into a futuristic jook joint. Particularly “16 Megatons” with its mosquito trumpet, stand-up bass, and drum brush skeleton which tumbles out of the speakers like a softly broken water main. “We’re out of Here” pimp rolls through extensive organ riffage and then just jumps off a psychedelic cliff. All of these songs combine what sounds like jazz instrumentation with techno’s greatest gift of creating hypnotic melody through simple, building repetition. But James Bradell is no novice and so, compared to his peers, he comes off looking like a skyscraper architect in a room full of kids with Legos.
“The Great Drive By” could have easily been on Bowery Electric’s masterstroke Beat and is a wonderful example of a lightly tinning beat dropped on top of guitar drone mantras. “The Great Drive By” is the down stroke of an album that waxes and wanes between a meth lab jazz ensemble and an utterly desolate tundra of raw sounds. “Back Home” mines a similarly loping tempo with fuzzy Hammond organ and a spare drum beat that sounds perpetually receding. Whatever potshots you might be inclined to make at the throwaway emptiness of many ambient outings (or maybe I’m speaking for myself), they are sorely out of place with Fast Asleep. There’s definitely a sophisticated mind mingling these tracks together and much more going on then the usual down tempo formula of taking a beautiful sound and turning it into a looped sedative. As a side note, it’s clear that James Bradell isn’t without the requisite cheeky British wit. On “New Dope”, he distorts Tony Blair’s voice to the point where he sounds like William Burroughs talking about the joys of needles and hungering junky humping.
This was the first CD I’ve ever reviewed where the DVD actually complemented the music in any significant way. Most of the time, they’re just skiffle that’s added to jack up any attempts at recording the disc for your friends. However, with Funky Porcini, the video images were a meditative feast of real objects made into pure forms through cunning feats of visual rhythm. To borrow from Mary J. Blige, there was lots of tripperation going on.
As I stared at my computer screen, I felt like I was becoming one of those Walter Keane paintings, y’know a big eyed child staring off into the void clutching a battle-scarred stuffed kitty. “The Big Sea” starts with what looks like an animated film negative and ends with sloshing folds of foamy waves calling to mind the zenned out state frequently found in numbed Laundromat patrons around the world. “Atomic Kitchen” follows the evaporation and/or freezing of a plate of water morphing it into a beat-synchronized dance of silver ball bearings. I know what you’re saying: “Terry, only someone huffing ethanol could finds themselves consumed with well-soundtracked pieces of ice”. But the videos have a way of making such simplicity enthralling. The video for “Last Night in Norway”, one of the few videos where language makes an appearance, acts as a handy cipher for Fast Asleep in general. It’s basically a shot of driving car, with a beautiful setting sun and landscape ribboning through the background. Beneath the image scrolls an unhinged trickle of thoughts, connected, but following a much less possessive, more lotus-leafed cadence. To enjoy this record takes a bit of concentration and a bit of letting go. Somewhere in the middle, is a waking musical dream well worth your time.