Jukeboxer: In the Food Chain

[27 September 2004]

By Tim O'Neil

After a period of prolonged isolation, the world of electronic music is finally beginning to shake the artificial stigma that for so long dogged dance music. Once upon a time, any music made with machines was unilaterally shunned by large segments of the music world. There were many reasons for this. The limited technology available to electronic artists until the mid-‘90s rigidly dictated the kinds of music that could be made. The preponderance of dance music inside the early electronic paradigm sparked vestigial remembrance of widespread disco hatred. The early success of house music in the late ‘80s helped add fuel to these popular prejudices.

But we live in a different world than we did 20, or even 10 years ago. The strange and steady evolution of pop music has had the unforeseen consequence of gradually eroding the prejudicial barriers demarcating certain once-isolated kingdoms of the music world. It has been a long time since I have heard the formerly ubiquitous rallying cry of “rap sucks!” and it been a similarly long time since I have heard anyone utter Madonna’s famously ironic maxim, “techno equals death”. If electronic music is still far from being as wonderfully ubiquitous in America as it is in Europe and Asia, then the trappings of electronic music are much more readily accepted. Few pop songs are created these days without a reliance on digital technology, and even formerly stiff generic barriers of resistance are breaking down in the face of electronic music’s infinitely malleable potential.

Which brings us, in a characteristically roundabout fashion, to Jukeboxer’s In the Food Chain. This is what folk music sounds like in a digital age. No, there are no pretentious goateed middle-class troubadours singing about Civil War battles or wheezing bad protest chants. The music on In The Food Chain represents a fruitful union between the gentle melodies of the acoustic guitar and the sampler, as these two once antithetical parties have merged in an attempt to assault conventional sonic boundaries.

The first track, “Pilgrim”, is perhaps as ebullient an examination of this paring as you could hope to hear. The track begins with a series of abstract random scratches, the delicate static employed so often by the mellower members of the IDM family tree. A lone acoustic guitar enters the mix, playing a simple riff repeatedly. Soon the static congeals into a rhythm, and the repetitive guitar pattern is joined by other guitar lines playing in slow counterpoint. The patterns build, weaving in and out of each other, breaking down and dissipating and reemerging in altered forms. Finally, towards the end of the song, the sound of running water is heard, and the glistening repetitions slowly fade into the ether. The elasticity of the digital medium has enabled the creation of a singularly stunning composition, a meditation on quiet repetition and melodic bliss.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t nearly as good. Jukeboxer is the alias of Noah Wall, and in collaboration with a select few other musicians, the Jukeboxer project as a whole is a mixed bag which manages to hit the jackpot about as often as it stumbles. “Missing Link” introduces the voice of Amy Jones into the mix, which adds little to the prevailing mood. “Banj” is a brief but pleasing interlude featuring a banjo and accordion set against some Indian percussion. “Thursday” is a rather interesting melodic experiment, featuring various melody lines being subsumed into greater waves of digital noise, being altered and evaporating into the still air. This track also features some of the more interesting usage of Jones’ voice in the mix, and is treated as merely another melodic element to be warped and manipulated in the pomo stew.

“Terrestrial” is perhaps the album’s poppiest piece, with a vibe reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s work with atonal chanteuse Nico. (I was never a fan of Nico, even her VU work, and it is interesting that Jones sounds very similar to Nico—if I were a singer I’d go out of my way to avoid sounding like Nico, but that’s just me.) “Opportunist” is another good track, featuring a duel between the acoustic guitar and surging digital feedback reminiscent of Evan Parker’s recent work with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.

“House Burning Down” ends the album on another high note. The track features what I believe to be Wall’s only vocal contribution, but it isn’t long enough to be grating. Instead, the song once again begins slowly, with the soft sound of crackling fire, and builds with the addition of droning guitar notes and electronic blips of gradually increasing complexity. Different notes come in and out of the mix, offset against various synthetic noises and finally woven together into a beautiful white noise that grows and grows as the end of the song approaches, building to a simultaneously grand and fragile climax of irreplaceable beauty.

Jukeboxer presents the listener with a compelling musical hybrid. We live in an age of unlimited potential, where the conventional and inherited limitations of genre are being quickly forgotten by successive generations of adventurous musicians. In The Food Chain is not a wholly convincing exploration of these themes, because the album’s overall focus is still too fragile and scattered to linger on the revealed strengths of the electronic / folk hybrid. When it does click, however, the results are truly magisterial.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jukeboxer-inthefood/