PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Earthen Sea's 'Grass and Trees' Has an Oblong, Building-Block Quality

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Earthen Sea's lavishly detailed new album, Grass and Trees, sounds like a classic dub-techno album but somehow doesn't feel like one.

Grass and Trees
Earthen Sea

Kranky

17 May 2019

Dub techno is an interesting genre because, while built on the limitless possibilities of dub and still relatively young, it seems consciously and cautiously committed to orthodoxy. It remains defined by the work of a few Germans in the mid-'90s, most of them orbiting the production duo/label Basic Channel. If all Western philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, the same can be said about dub techno and this tiny group (though the American Rod Modell has managed to mount a successful counter-tradition). The most innovative dub techno releases tend to work through subtle mischief rather than mold-shattering blows to convention, and Grass and Trees—the new release by Jacob Long's project Earthen Sea—exemplifies this approach.

Long, a D.C. hardcore punk veteran who still rocks a fearsome beard and a stare like Satan's has been flirting with the late '90s intersection of ambient and club music for most of this decade. Last year's An Act of Love evoked dubby classics like Vladislav Delay's Multila but was equally as informed by the gauzy reveries of Gas and the hi-def, Ampex-treated ambient of latter-day torch-bearers like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Rafael Anton Irisarri. Its dub techno DNA shone through mostly in its cold, corroded atmosphere, where everything seemed half-glimpsed through a fog. Grass and Trees is the reverse: it's much more orthodox, using sounds we might recognize from the genre's history, but somehow it doesn't feel like a dub techno album.

Most notably, it has no interest in obfuscation. Every element is plainly apparent, and there are rarely more than five or six per track. There aren't many new sounds to pick up on your fourth listen that you won't notice on your third. The dominant percussion sounds are an untreated MIDI clap and an ominous knocking that makes Grass and Trees less than ideal for listening to in a dark room. Rather than everything melting into a briny soup as occurs on An Act of Love or most of the music from which Long takes influence, Grass and Trees has an oblong, building-block quality. It feels freshly assembled and polished, not dredged up from the rusty abyss and run through an acid bath.

Long lavishes a lot of detail on the individual chords. Opener "Existing Closer or Deeper in Space" (Long is a romantic when it comes to song titles, which is really a 21st-century trend in ambient) is all about the way those big minor chords elegantly dissipate, spawning little echo-clones that spring to life and retreat just as quickly back into the earth. On "Shallow, Shadowless" Long seems to be manually dragging the chords across the ground. There's something curiously microscale about Grass and Trees, as if you're squinting at individual objects as if under a microscope or through a pair of binoculars.

The title of the record makes me think of the old expression "can't see the forest for the trees". That's the only real issue I have with this otherwise excellent album. It's so focused on individual sounds that it doesn't generate much atmosphere and isn't the kind of album you can get lost within. It's a small record, only 38 minutes long with all the tracks four or five minutes. "Living Space" stretches to nine minutes but doesn't make much of a point of it. It doesn't evoke the vastness of the universe but implies it, taking us into a thicket and leaving no stone unturned before gently leading us back out.

Yet I suspect I haven't yet unlocked the full potential of this album. As I write this, my native San Francisco is in the middle of an uncomfortable hot spell. It's been sunny for weeks, with temperatures soaring into the 90s. Though raised in D.C. and now in New York, Long has lived in San Francisco in the past, naming an early release Ocean Beach after the windswept strip of land that separates the city from the roiling sea. San Francisco is almost always fogged out in the late summer months—dub techno weather. If I were to write this review two months from now, I'd probably like it even more.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.