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Hall Ranaldo Hooker

Oasis of Whispers

(Alien 8 Recordings; US: 1 Nov 2005)

The Old-Time Sounds of a Sonic Youth

This is the sort of album sure to go out of print right away, only to be rediscovered fifty years from now as a long-lost whisper from the past that deserves a reissue extravaganza. Such is the lot of weird exploratory music in our time: it already sounds ancient, as if we were listening to it in the future, hearing it anew through the passage of time.


More concretely, Oasis of Whispers is yet another electronic-improv Sonic Youth side project, this time with guitarist Lee Ranaldo performing live in Buffalo alongside multi-instrumentalist Glen Hall (mostly on saxophone) and free-jazz drummer William Hooker. In the tradition of John Coltrane’s most ecstatic recordings, the music throbs with energy, mostly due to Hooker’s powerful, furtive drumming and Hall’s saxophone screams. The music in this style is good, but nothing new.


Things get more interesting, however, when Ranaldo starts lacing in audio collages: what sound like shortwave radio broadcasts coming in through the static, old answering-machine messages, and bits of cut-up audio commentary straight out of some William S. Burroughs novel or a Joe Frank radio piece. That’s when you start to feel like you are listening to, as the liner notes put it, the “calligraphy of some unknown language . . . perception, like a radio receiver tuned in to all the frequencies of this world.”


The best songs on Oasis of Whispers, such as “Conference Call”, mix acoustic and electronic sounds: Hall’s oscillating flute, vocal grunts, and mutterings; Ranaldo’s eerie guitar-chord voicings and audio snippets; and Hooker’s rumbling tom-toms, chattering bells, and sudden cymbal claps. The music slowly builds, but not to get anywhere in particular. Rather, the trio seems more interested in exploring the sonorities and rhythms of contemporary life as they accumulate and sediment in our minds, fading into memory, exploding into dreamlife.


Somewhere between bodies and machines, we exist as individuals and vanish into larger systems. Email alert pings and jet airplane whooshes float through the same experiential spaces as church bells in a quiet seaside village and cotton sheets on a hotel bed. The windows are open here. There, through the sealed glass, the clouds, the sky. A baby cries. A man lies on the beach. I’m checking the calendar. I knew I was going to miss you. Tonight you’re in San Francisco. We just pulled into Seattle. Your voice sounds so far and distant.


On Oasis of Whispers, voices “far and distant” zoom from the periphery to the center, speaking words that become interesting not for their actual semantic meaning or content, but for their form and their emotional grain. The words do not add up. But, meanwhile, the instruments try to articulate revelations. Ranaldo, Hall, and Hooker have important messages to deliver, if only we could speak the language, decipher the codes of musical expression, journey to the secret oasis of their whispers.


Things are reversed, then, on this album: words are now musical noises and musical noises now strive to be words. Form has become content and content form. This is scary and can drive one mad, as on “View from Bellevue”, a harrowing scream from the mental hospital in New York City. Or it can be soothing, as on the tinkles and murmurs of the title track, “Oasis of Whispers”. It can unleash calming, familiar memories, as in the cover of Sonny Rollins’ “Blue Seven”. Or it can hurtle us toward the edge, as on “Blow”.


The mix-up between words and noises, lyrics with no instrumental purpose and instruments trying to get something said, make Oasis of Whispers intriguing. But the album could highlight Lee Ranaldo’s wonderful guitar playing more. On a song like “Blue Seven”, Ranaldo suggests the sounds of an abandoned factory turned into a sacred site of worship. The aura of all those deindustrialized manufacturing lofts in Soho and Tribeca, which were filled up in the 1970s and 1980s with a new kind of production—the making of art and music—have lodged themselves in Ranaldo’s style. He evokes a lost world when the cities of America were abandoned to rust and punk, rap and free-jazz, rot and a strange kind of avant-garde hope. In the “church of the sonic guitar,” as the music critic Robert Palmer once called it, Ranaldo deserves more recognition as one of the high priests. He does not quite get the focus on Oasis of Whispers that his guitar-playing deserves.


Perhaps decades from now, when albums like this resurface with the ghosts of lost worlds, Ranaldo will become one of those mystery figures—the Masked Marvel, Henry Thomas, Charlie Poole, Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, Skip James—whose music makes more and more sense. I hear a song such as “Conference Call” on some future Anthology of American Folk Music, lovingly and lavishly repackaged for those seeking to map out the “invisible republic” of turn-of-the-(twenty-first)-century sounds.


For the time being, though, what this album most of all offers is a kind of sensitivity to the stimuli we tend to tune out, the simultaneously underlying and overwhelming hum of living in current times. It’s a confusing place. There are so many whispers crossing paths in the atmosphere that nothing gels, nothing quite completes the puzzle, nothing quite stitches the world up into a complete whole. Tuning in to the whispers of our existence can hardly be thought of as discovering an oasis. There is no safety, no refuge. But, there is discovery if we open our ears to the electro-acoustic whir and fizz. There is a sense of the continued fertility of the world, its outposts of life still thriving in what has been called the desert of the real. Oasis of Whispers becomes a place where we can quench our thirst for the mystery of this perseverance.

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