Murky and mysterious, Chicago’s Zelienople are a band that creates atmospheric music that swims somewhere in the lower depths of pop, jazz, and instrumental experimentalism. Their debut album, Pajama Avenue, introduces a trio that is clearly interested in steering its own course.
Their bio indicates that they’re a group of musicians who came together out of a shared frustration with the standard rock scene. It’s a well-worn story, but Zelienople have at least produced a sound that doesn’t quite fit easy style categorization. It maintains the sleepy calm of dreampop, but unlike the music of label-mates (and label founders) Melochrome, the emptiness of their drone jazz is never quite relaxing. You could say it’s a photo negative of shoegazer rock, with all the high, ethereal guitar replaced by a gloomy, dazed quality. While Morphine played with the low end of the scale, and mixing jazz and rock, their songs were noisy, vibrant, and messily alive. Zelienople isn’t anything like that at all, preferring the slowcore vibe over the frenetic. Rather, Zelienople’s music would probably work well as a soundtrack to a quiet and melancholy independent film.
This kind of ambient atmosphere is produced through a muted layer of textures. Mike Weis’s drums might rumble, or clip along with cymbal patter, but they’re so subdued that they add merely a hint of crackling energy. More prominent are Brian Harding’s synthesizers, but these too are used primarily to add a hypnotic, spacey tone that lulls rather than delivers hooks. Even the vocals, provided by bassist Matt Christensen, are a pale blur delivered in hushed whispers that often get lost in the swampy dirges of sound.
It’s not all monotony with Zelienople, however. Songs like “It’s Hard to Steal Cars”, “Christmas”, and the untitled final track offer just enough light touches of instrumental hooks and a swelling sense of body that captures the listener’s attention. But the biggest danger with drone music, even jazz-pop, is that it can all become an auditory gray, and at times Pajama Avenue falls into this trap. Although variation does exist within these songs, the barely-there delivery makes these songs slightly monochromatic. The languid sensation of listening to the disc is less soothing than it is numbing, and even when tracks like the album closer, “Please to Police”, inspire a vague dread, it’s not enough to lift the listener out of the overall cloud of this album.
Zelienople delivers the goods with Pajama Avenue, but it’s a question of what the goods are. As music that defies rock standards, it’s successful, but it’s such a heavy listening experience that it’s bound to lose a few ears. However, if drone and ambient gloom are your thing, you’ll dig it.