The electronic jazz/post-rock instrumental experimentation of Fontanelle’s 2000 self-titled debut suggested a slightly funky hybrid of Can and early-’70s Miles Davis. F offers much of the same.
Strictly speaking, F isn’t an entirely new album for the Portland-based group; it comprises material drawn from recording sessions that date back to 1998, when Fontanelle was formed by ex-Jessamine members Rex Ritter (guitar) and Andy Brown (keyboards).
This release is largely the work of a six-man lineup. In addition to Ritter and Brown, F features keyboard players Paul Dickow and Brian Foote, guitarist Charlie Smyth, and drummer Mat Morgan, who bring their diverse talents to bear on the proceedings. Retro synth sounds, melodic keyboards, intricate guitar patterns, and shifting syncopated rhythms contribute different textures that often come together in a jazzy groove.
Fontanelle’s electronic dimension is nicely accented by the droning and throbbing synth of “Fulcrum”, a track that conjures up images of some pulsing sci-fi pod or chrysalis, albeit in an unmenacing, mildly camp way. (If Air were to record a soundtrack to a horror film, it might well sound something like this.) “Fulcrum” also underscores one of the album’s more interesting leitmotifs, a kind of minimalist funk inflection that never fully declares itself in extended melodic sections. This works best on the seven-minute “Charm & Strange”, whose pockets of synthesized wah-wah noise would not sound out of place as an ingredient in the incidental music to some ’70s cop show, possibly during a car chase scene.
The band excels on “Floor Tile”, a track that centers on repeating, interwoven lines of minimal piano and guitar melody that gradually build and subtly change, with mesmerizing results. It evokes both John Martyn’s “Glistening Glyndebourne” and sections of the Soft Machine’s “Out-Bloody-Rageous”.
Much has been made of the band’s improvisational approach to composition. Although such a creative process has generated some truly fine work on F, it might also account for the album’s less compelling passages, where things cohere only momentarily and have an unfinished, jam-like feel. “Corrective Lenses”, for instance, works itself into a hypnotic swagger, yet ultimately it fragments, coming to an end that leaves the song sounding incomplete, having never realized its potential.
In places F tends to get a little bogged down in its own noodliness and, consequently, some tracks sound static and circular. Despite its excellent sub-funk bubblings, “Return Envelope” is much as its title suggests — it ends up where it started without making any significant progression. The one truly weak spot, or fontanelle, comes on “Walking with Mercer”, a number that simply plods along murkily.
However, for the most part Fontanelle keeps the listener’s attention. F is undoubtedly cerebral but, in general, it’s not too brainy or too clever for its own good and makes for engaging, enjoyable listening.