Ethan Rose: Oaks

[30 March 2009]

By David Abravanel

Does anyone else remember the video for “Lunchbox” by Marilyn Manson? The scenes with the band take place in a roller rink, which, I’ve come to realize, is a hallmark of ‘90s alternative rock videos (along with theme parks and carnivals). When I recently asked a friend why he thought this was, he responded, “kids had to hang out somewhere before the Internet.” Having come of age as the Internet was transitioning from novelty network to vital lifeline, this metamorphosis of youth social capital resonates with me in a way that veers dangerously close to the ignorant nostalgia embraced by those who are stuck in the past. As with all art that contemplates days past, there’s a conundrum: how do you honor the warm, intangible feelings of days past without retreading and retreating?

Ethan Rose’s Oaks is as good an answer as I’ve heard. The compositional process speaks for itself. Rose sampled a vintage Wurlitzer organ, housed in the Oaks Park roller rink in Portland, OR, for every source sample on the record. The sounds are electronically processed and sequenced, for a dreamy glaze that varies from chirps to chimes to icy drones.  As could be expected, there’s plenty of reverb to go around. Further expanding on the historical significance of his sample matter, the liner notes feature a black and white photograph of an old sign over the rink, advertising “healthful exercise” and “delightful pleasure.”

I grew up not far from Oaks Park, and, as an amusement park, its continued existence is a testament to the value of technologically outmoded means of human interaction. Much as we might have space-age methods of entertaining ourselves, there’s still something to be said for a trip down the fairway, or getting stuck at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Growing up, my encounters with the Oaks Park roller rink were often exercises in futility that resulted in butt bruises aplenty, but I still get fuzzy just listening to Oaks and remembering birthday parties in the days before Evites. Oaks elicits some degree of nostalgia, but, perhaps in anticipation to that, Rose’s compositions are cloudy and decaying, slow dripping notes that serve as lovely vacations, but never cease to remind the listener that this is the past we’re thinking of.

Oaks’s cover features a watercolor painting from Boyd Richard. It’s a fitting medium in contrast with the music: eerily anti-realistic renderings of blemish-free people enjoying their skating, with background blacks and blues that bleed into one another much like the sustained tones on the album. Contrary to the expectations of its title, a track like “Grad Marcher” is relatively unobtrusive, a bleached memory of an important event, overlaid by the whitewash of aging grey matter. The tonal structures on Oaks are generally free. When patterns do emerge, it sounds like coincidence rather than a premeditated, computer-composed loop. The repeating swells on “Fortunate” provide the closest thing to traditional structure, progressively layering with modulated icy trills to nowhere in particular. I’m not convinced, however, that Oaks is intended to be a fully ambient work. The pieces don’t often have the most defined beginnings and ends, but it’s hard to appreciate Oaks subconsciously, or give it less than full listening attention.

It’s quite possible that my opinion of Oaks is irreparably biased by my own relationship with Oaks Amusement Park. Having played the album for friends with no connection, I’ll conclude that Oaks accomplishes the interesting feat of sounding like memory. In a hard-to-define way, the tracks here feature just the right levels of detuning and timbral similarity. (While the liner notes include a list of different organ presets used, I’d be hard-pressed to pick out any instances of “saxophone” or “crash cymbal” or “snare drum”.) Other listeners are bound to process this differently, but it’s hard to deny the melancholy emotion and sustained beauty pouring out of Oaks.

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