[19 March 2009]
On the back of White Bird Release‘s CD case, ex-Labradford guitarist and Pan-American maestro Mark Nelson writes the track listing in the form it was always meant to take, as an unbroken sentence-length quotation: “‘There can be no thought of finishing, for “aiming at the stars”—both literally and figuratively—is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.’—Dr. Robert Goddard in a letter to H.G. Wells, 1932.” Labradford pulled the same stunt on E Luxo So a decade earlier, where the names of the songs, read in order, were nothing so much as the album’s credits. Individualized track titles are often baloney anyway, misleading in some cases and meaningless in others—the product of the album format, a culture that requires everything to be named, and the human need for easy answers. Nelson likely considers them to be a necessary triviality at best, a distraction that undermines his art as an autonomous statement at worst.
Labradford was indeed one of the least bullshit bands ever to have the displeasure of being tossed in the post-rock grab bag. Their instrumental bases—spaghetti western guitars, soundtracky keyboard drones, feedback loops—didn’t exactly ensure that this would be the case, but they trimmed fat relentlessly and presented their material with intensity and earnestness, and people got it. One of Labradford’s smartest tactical maneuvers in hindsight was to deviate from their compatriots in post-rock by leaving electronics largely out of the picture, except as the most subtle, imperceptible filigree. Why? Electronics have a far greater range of motion than do acoustic instruments and, with an experienced enough commander, can do pretty much whatever they please. Which is how they’ve become responsible for so much forward-thinking music, but have also contributed to mucking up what might have otherwise been elegantly simple. It’s a big reason why the glitchy, dubby, and mostly electronic Pan-American has taken some getting used to in the wake of Labradford’s dissolution, despite the two bands sharing more than a few attributes.
Electronics, in the brittle way that Nelson employs them, can also leave people feeling cold and undernourished, which appeared to be the general reaction to his glitchiest and most experimental work, 2002’s The River Made No Sound. He followed that two years later with Quiet City, a much more organic record exhuming Labradford’s guitar-centric post-rock in a conspicuous way, and the public ate it up. The challenge for Pan-American, then, would seem to be how to justify its own existence without backpedaling to bygones in order to satisfy an audience—a challenge Nelson meets at least with White Bird Release‘s opener, “There Can Be No Thought of Finishing”. The deep, undulating guitar pattern that hits like a loaded memory is enough to make your heart turgid with longing, but when the electronic drones and ringing glitches rain down midway through, your heart bursts and angels are pouring the liquid back into you from a goblet. “So That No Matter” is the record’s other high point, a relaxed pool of varying guitar treatments and bits of exotic percussion, though its proximity to Labradford means it’s a qualified success.
The rest of the album wafts by in a strange haze and never rises above an inside voice. “For Aiming at the Stars” floats a muted guitar wail and spare vibraphones over pitter-patter ride cymbal drumming. “Both Literally and Figuratively” begins with quiet violins and a bit of free jazz percussion for an air of mysticism, then becomes a melancholy tune with Nelson whispering to us from the edge of wakefulness. “Is a Problem to Occupy Generations” is little more than a distant feedback throb with the faintest inklings of melody gliding to the surface. The darkened, dubbed-out “How Much Progress One Makes” ups the tension with some electronic blipping before “There Is Always the Thrill of Just Beginning” settles back into the record’s familiar combination of dampened electric guitar excursions, percussive flourishes, and droney low-end.
The overall effect is lulling, though the songs rumble with something ominous that’s often below the threshold of audible perception. It can be felt, sensed. This makes White Bird Release a small but definite uptick from Quiet City, which tended to be squat and stationary, concerned with little more than maintaining its gossamer atmosphere. It’s a tired critical technique to call experimental electronica “dreamlike”, since much of it attempts to transport the listener beyond the corporeal, but White Bird Release does manage to do this, through impeccable pacing, hints of melody, and subtle shifts in mood from one track to the next. Just as the song titles have little meaning if they’re not read back to back, so does the music only fully cohere upon listening to the record as a continuous, flowing piece. But the dream doesn’t seem to lift us above the ground; something about Nelson’s chaste guitar timbres and middling drones keeps us from arriving there. Instead, we might slide into another level of consciousness on the horizontal plane we call our real life.
Maybe that’s why White Bird Release doesn’t wow, why the minimal feels minimal and not maximal. “In a Letter to H.G. Wells, 1932” doesn’t make a compelling case for the employment of electronics at all. Its bass thump, programmed woodblocks, and numb, high-pitched synth (?) just reinforce the music’s superfluity. But even if the album does more to cast a spell and correct mistakes than any of Nelson’s prior solo endeavors, Pan-American still sounds… kind of ordinary. This type of ambient/electronic/post-rock hybrid usually doesn’t yield major overhauls between albums, and it’s clear that Nelson is making refinements in order to refrain from birthing the same record twice. But within White Bird Release‘s circumscribed framework, the superior “There Can Be No Thought of Finishing” strikes me as oddly daring. Dr. Goddard, a founding father of rocketry, wasn’t originally inspired to aim at the stars by astrophysicists or mathematicians, but by science fiction writers who used their imaginations to dream up what pragmatics wouldn’t allow. How exhilarating it would be if aiming at the stars were a problem to occupy Pan-American, if his equipment were to someday be utilized in the service of his conceptions about what was possible.