Independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been credited as one of the primary driving forces behind the independent film movement in America, starting with his 1984 release Stranger than Paradise and continuing to push said movement with each avant-garde and surreal art-house film he has made in the three decades since then. The now 60-year-old writer and director is the rare breed of auteur who has nether slowed down nor sold out over the years.
Jarmusch has also been an actor and editor and began scoring films starting in 1980 with his debut, Permanent Vacation. This was followed in 1982 by his score for Der Stand der Dinge, helmed not by Jarmusch but by German director Wim Wenders. It was 2009’s The Limits of Control, written and directed by Jarmusch, that united him with fellow musicians Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback for the psychedelic rock songs from that film. As a result, the trio formed Squrl (stylized as “SQÜRL”). Their debut extended play (simply called EP #1) was released in May of 2013 and is available as an MP3 download and as a 12-inch vinyl picture disc limited to 1000 hand-numbered copies.
For those familiar with Jarmusch’s work, EP #1 is pretty much exactly what one would expect from the idiosyncratic, minimalist creator and his close associates. Each of the four songs is paced, noisy, distorted, infused with strange dialogue, and decidedly (if deliciously) weird. With or without Jim’s involvement each song feels perfectly fit to play a back or foreground part in, well, a very surreal Jim Jarmusch film.
However, that isn’t to say that the songs are so specialized that they can’t be enjoyed in their own right. While they may be a radio programmer’s worst nightmare and are anything but commercial, each song revels in its anti-commercialism effortlessly without ever seeming to make a statement about being avant-garde.
The EP’s opener, “Pink Dust”, is almost infinitely listenable in its oddball experimentation from its French language sampling to its feedback-heavy distorted guitars. EP #1 begins to feel a bit more like a rock and roll collection with its second track, “Dead Naked Hippies”. The murky wall of distorted, buzzing guitars can’t contain the singer’s fuzzy, sincere voice that guides the snapping drums and thudding bass while heavy chords and dark arpeggios remind one that of the many musicians Jarmusch has directed over the years, former members of Sonic Youth also made their appearances.
“Little Sister” is almost bright by comparison to the previous song. The bluesy yet Fugazi-distorted guitar riffs and nearly indecipherable lyrics of the buried voice, “Little Sister” sounds like a song one might hear in a college bar with a cool, if unskillfully mixed indie band making its debut. The fact that none of SQURL’s members is a beginner shows the fun they undertake on this project, putting forth this affectation out of love and art with no eye towards dollar signs.
The EP’s final “song” is entitled “Some Feedback for Jozef Van Wissem” and is just that: four minutes of feedback loops dedicated to Dutch minimalist composer (and Jarmusch’s erstwhile musical collaborator) Jozef Van Wissem. That may seem like a load of noise in the vein of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, but somehow “Feedback” comes off as the most orchestral and (almost) melodic track on the album as if each wave of sound was an intentional note, filling up the background of a particularly surreal, black-and white-scene in Jarmusch’s own mind.
Only four tracks long, EP #1 still demands repeat listens to get what is going on, and “getting” it might not be the same thing as “liking” it. The album is nothing if not experimental, and often the experiments work wonderfully, but for all the diversity of sounds, styles, and samples (of which there are many), Squrl doesn’t do any experimenting with different speeds, maintaining the low and slow drive of the rock (if one can truly call this rock) on each track. Fans of Sonic Youth and Japanther are likely to have a beautiful time enjoying Jarmusch’s Squrl project. At worst this is a novelty; at best, it’s an inventive and fun listen from three truly independent artists. It doesn’t get any more independent than this.