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Pan American: Quiet City

Stefan Braidwood

Pan American

Quiet City

Label: Kranky
US Release Date: 2004-06-21
UK Release Date: Available as import

Just as Puck (whose delight at Shakespeare in Neil Gaiman's stunning The Sandman I loosely quote here) is amazed by the capacity of art to present undeniable reality through fiction, so was I enraptured by The River Made No Sound, the third solo album from mainstay of post-rock heroes Labradford, Mark Nelson. Here was a body of music that, despite bearing not the remotest susurrus of human voices, nor indeed much in the way of recognisable instrumentation, playing or structure, yet despite its provenance an ocean and then some away, spoke to me with a wordless purity of humanity and poignant intimacy. In its echoes and drifts, its rises and sprawls of shimmering tone, flickering samples and bass beyond depth I could lose myself instantly without a trace, yet find myself everywhere present and reflected. It shone on the quiet waters of my midnight soul and revealed warmth and strength simply not present in the disc itself.

So I liked it a lot, then. But Vibrations magazine dubbed (hehe) him "maitre de la silence" on the evidence of that album, so there's at least one other human being who felt the same connection to its dulcet yet frigid post-dub as I do. General opinion seems to be more in favour of sophomore LP 360 Business, 360 Bypass, which I find lush but nowhere near as involving, and certainly not penetrating. For this new album, Nelson shifts into a musical mode that is less driving and more subdued than his last offering, yet more conventionally accessible. The appearance of misty trumpet of misty trumpet and flugelhorn (played with mournful, burnished sweetness by David Max Crawford, who's worked with Wilco and Stereolab), upright bass (Charles Kim, who co-composes several tracks) and live drums (Steve Hess, of the magnificently-titled Hat Melter) herald the entrance of musicians and a traditional human presence on the record, and suggest a trend towards the jazz-imbued realm of German dubmeister Pole. However, the latter's stark, driving digital frameworks are entirely absent; everything drifts peacefully over beds of gently whispering found sound or a muted static fuzz, Nelson's soft guitar trails matched or replaced by the other instruments in a manner that suggests thoughtful, individual improvisation to the background glimmer and the open sky, rather than a concerted team aiming at any structure in particular. The image of a group's instruments lying together on a grassy hillside at night after a studio jam session comes to mind, traces of the musicians' vigour and warmth deliquescing into the air in shared reverie.

Drums are present, but their intonations are sporadic and entirely organic, adding a veneer of cushioned impacts to the whole rather than imposing a rhythm, and the bass now bobs and plucks in solid daubs rather than the ocean current of The River... or the interweaving flows of Rothko, whose The Continual Search for Origins offers the occasional point of reference for a listener like myself when imbibing this music. Nelson even sings a little, though again his husky whispering, whilst oddly impassioned, adds texture and fractured imagery to the sonic plateaux rather than evoking a song or a message. These more traditional ingredients have been mixed to form a lonely, melancholy relation of musique concrete that retain an essentially American tinge of folk; gone is the alien yet intuitive dub of the subconscious that entranced me. Nevertheless, Nelson retains his ability to create music that is more affecting than logically warranted in the face of aural analysis; on the nine minute "Wing", very little occurs besides a lucent tone dilating and twirling, whilst static prickles and lights twinkle, yet halting the track is like hearing a nearby friend's absent-minded humming abruptly cut off. "Inside Hush" will have you hush and hearken from its opening seconds, and imbue you with calm, but you will not know why.

Included with the lovingly packaged CD is a DVD with a short video essay by Nelson and visual artist Annie Feldmeier, supposedly an ambient video equivalent to the amniotic mental cinema of the music. Sadly I couldn't watch it due to region restrictions, but I'll bet it's just as hauntingly resonant as the non-existent Quiet City, which I now feel I've visited. The master of silence will be returning with a new release on the Mosz label shortly; it will be interesting to see what he crafts next, now that he has cast the city and the soul as musical landscapes.

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