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Greg Davis: Somnia

Brian James

Greg Davis


Label: Kranky
US Release Date: 2004-11-02
UK Release Date: 2004-11-01

Greg Davis seems like a bad bet to make it in the rock world, probably because, for all his eclecticism, he doesn't really rock at all. Not that it's beyond him, mind you. He's had his fingers dipped in quite a few different musical jars, from jazz to hip-hop to free-form improvisation to the genre he's most known for, folktronica. It's fair to say that he's a difficult man to pigeonhole, but if anything remains constant in his work, it's his interest in bridging the gap between electronic and acoustic instruments. Most artists who employ both elements resolve the tension by falling firmly on one side of the line, but keeping the tension balanced is what seems to interest Davis, and it's this stance that makes him an intriguing figure.

Like most intriguing figures, whatever it is that makes Davis appealing in the first place is the very thing he seems destined to throw out the window in a fit of creative daring, and that's precisely what he's done with Somnia, his third proper LP. Each track on the album features Davis playing a single instrument that's been processed through computer trickery until it sounds almost nothing like it naturally would. It's a bold idea, one made all the more so by the fact that Davis isn't exactly showing off his chops on any of his instruments, going instead for drones that, if they change at all, do so at such a glacial pace as to be virtually unnoticeable. On occasion, Davis will do some dramatic panning, but if that doesn't sound like your idea of a good time, Somnia is not for you. It works in subtleties so minute that there's no shame in simply declaring the record a bore and opting instead for more dynamic pleasures like, say, Brian Wilson's SMiLE. With this and many other records offering lovely melodies and harmonies, why would anyone want to spend time with Somnia?

I pose this question not as a rhetorical one, but as a query that I genuinely struggle with. Somnia is essentially ambient music, and a well-crafted specimen at that. Understanding the labors that go into recording and sound processing makes it an impressive work, and even musical ignoramuses listening to it would find it easy to fall into a trance, or, as the title suggests, to fall asleep. But Martha Bayles, in her wonderfully controversial book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, dares to ponder the value of hypnotic music removed from the religious context from which it originated. We become entranced, and then not much happens. The music stops, and we become un-entranced. Somnia, since it is done so well, is enjoyable for its duration, but great music is more than enjoyable. It communicates. It leaves something with its listeners long after it's no longer playing. At its best, it transmits some higher truth that could not have been transmitted without the medium of music. What could Somnia be said to communicate, or rather, what does it mean? And if the answer is "nothing," then does its meaninglessness render it as just another mood-altering device? Is Somnia nothing more than a drug?

These questions are probably far too doctrinaire to be of much good, however. Most people will like or loathe ambient music based solely on their gut reaction to the stuff, and those already converted should find Somnia to be excellent. It's not the best place for beginners to dive in -- Brian Eno retains that honor -- but it does justice by everything ambient music is supposed to do justice by, and its textures are superb throughout. It isn't enough to becalm my jittery brain on behalf of the ambient genre, but Davis will, I'm sure, produce another thought-provoking album of a different type before I've lost too much sleep over this one.

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