It takes a tremendous amount of patience to endure one’s first listen to Muki, a collection of faintly electronicized dirges from the founding members of Ida, Daniel Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell (wondering why they would choose a name that makes one expect an Asian pop import, we searched for an explanation but found nothing). The pace is funereal; the instrumentation minimal, with the melodies provided almost grudgingly; the drum loops primitive, almost random in their scattershot dispersal of burps, hisses and clicks; the vocals intoned with glacial repose, remote and a bit forbidding (and multisyllabic words hard to comprehend, because one forgets the first syllable by the time the last one’s finally delivered); the sound effects ominous, in the way unidentifiable noises on a moonless night acquire sinister and inscrutable intent.
Some songs are obscure experiments in sound: the grating “Hitch the Knot” is nothing more than a shaker and what sounds like a bucket rattling in a well, supplemented by a loop of a little keyboard doodle better suited to be a cell phone ring. “Wake Up Call” and “Daydreaming (and I’m Thinking of U)” are merely loops of a single chord (or maybe two) played in a deliberate arpeggio with Mitchell’s drawn-out vocals draped over the top. “Booster Shot” begins with a harmonium played with characteristic lugubriousness, but it breaks into one of the album’s more genial moments, with expressive singing from Littleton, whose vocals throughout are more accessible, as they don’t rely on the ploy of stretching words out over seven measures to make them emotional. “Oldest News”, another song on which Littleton sings lead, sounds like a song from Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom played at the wrong speed; with a compelling set of lyrics that suggest a narrative, and a bona fide melody in place of an incidental one that emerges from a loop (loop anything and it will become musical if you are forced to listen to it long enough). The backdrop is also richer, which throws the spareness of all the others into unflattering relief.
With many of these skeletal songs one longs for more flesh, a thicker texture with more aural threads woven in. Only “The Fullness of Time”, a Beth Orton-like piece of folktronica, approaches the same density, where one can revel in the discreet touches peppered throughout. Elsewhere, the arrangements seem too spacious, too simple; they are clear, precise, and distinct, but what is expressed emotionally remains muddled. This ambiguity is likely part of Nanang Tatang’s plan, of course, inviting a listener to contemplate the shifting moods that underlie the repetitions involved in the succession of days, the dread that haunts domestic cycles. Like everyday life itself, Nanang Tatang’s music is subtly upsetting, in the way a harmony will be a shade off, or a single note in a piano run will be off-key.
It’s a difficult listening experience all around, perhaps more masochistic than meditative. The opening two tracks are especially difficult: more than a minute elapses in the opener, “Bunny Hop Hop”, before much of anything other than a droning note is heard, and “On Me Forever” features an especially queasy echo effect over everything, the aural equivalent of the waves one feels before vomiting. Like Low, whom they strongly resemble here (particularly when they harmonize, as on “R U Ready”, which borrows a hook from Big Star, of all things), their approach is not so much disciplined as it is parsimonious; it’s musically autistic in its reluctance to offer anything soothing or conciliatory to audiences. Since at first we don’t really have much sense of what they hold back, their restraint seems more like torpor. But the feeling one’s left with after hearing the album is difficult to dismiss; the tenacious yearning that unobtrusively girds the songs and unifies them ultimately leaves its mark. If one bears with this album, one begins to sense the energy lying behind the lethargy; one recognizes how slowness is more relentless than speed.