OCEAN

by therefore

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about

The below review is reprinted from Last Plane to Jakarta:

As recently as 1996, you could still expect to see the occasional cassette in a stack of promotional mailings. I’m not sure, since I didn’t start receiving promotional mailings until very recently, but I’d guess that advance cassettes have always been the unwanted sandlot ballplayer of the promotional mailings circuit. Skipping from a song you’re not enjoying to the next one on a cassette is a cumbersomely mechanical process, and a prospective listener would be better off just making a choice and sticking to it: either one listens to the album from beginning to end, enduring the lulls stoically, or one gambles that it’s not going to get any better and just throws it away. From what I know of music critics I can’t imagine many of them being thrilled about such a proposition. The chances of missing the gem near the end -- Stephen Malkmus’s “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” comes to mind -- are just too great. The alternative, though, is inevitably going to result in a whole lot of unrecoverable time wasted. The cassette mailing was doomed from the start.

Record labels, of course, liked promotional cassette mailings a lot, since they were cheap, and nearly impossible to sell, making for a decreased look-how-fast-this-landed-in-the-cut-out-bin factor. If you got an advance cassette and tried to sell it to your local used-records merchant, you were either stupid or unfathomably optimistic: nobody wants these things. No cover art, no bonus tracks, none of the big-blank-canvas thrill of a promotional LP or a test pressing. But as soon as one of the big labels determined that, cost-wise, it was just as cheap to send a CD, then the cassette mailing’s days were numbered. Only the truly hopeless -- sentimentalists who can actually muster up some pity for the losing contestants on Wheel of Fortune or for the small-time dope dealer who gets caught lying on Cops -- feel any nostalgia for the promotional cassette.

But “hopeless” is our middle name here at Last Plane to Jakarta, and when we got a jiffy bag with a couple of cassettes and a two-page press kit in it about six weeks ago, we were thrilled. We could hardly believe it, to tell you the truth. There was something magical about it. Our age is the age of cheaply available digital technology; yet here was a band ignoring the obvious (CDs are cheaper) and the glaringly obvious (CDs are popular) and sending out tapes of its newest album, a release, as it turns out, available exclusively on cassette, entitled Ocean. It’s by an ensemble that has boldly leapt into the worst-band-name-ever sweepstakes with one of the most daring and outré entries to date: the band is called, brace yourself, therefore. All lower-case and with a period afterwards. therefore. (It’s too late for therefore., but in case anybody else is tempted to give their band a comparably awful name, please do write to Last Plane to Jakarta and we will name your band for you. If not for yourselves, then do it for the children. Thank you.) The mind reels.

But the novelty of the two cassettes sitting unpretentiously next to our computer’s keyboard offset the Cthulu-level horror of the band’s name; the tapes, one in a case with a printed J-card and one just vulnerably sitting there, had a sort of sidekick-charm to them. I imagined them as anthropomorphized figures with gravely, high-pitched voices: “Here we are, buddy! Hey, tapes! Check it out!” And so on. And so I listened to Ocean, and no-one is more surprised than I to find myself telling you all that it is really something to hear.

It is also something really hard to talk about without resorting to some truly unfortunate terminology: “sound sculpture,” “noise music,” “free improvisation,” “experimental collective” -- who among us does not feel a deeply-seated, almost physical revulsion in the presence of such coarse language? I would not blame you one bit if you’d Command-Q’d your way right out of here just seeing such terms, even in quotes. But for the one or two of you who are still here, well, bless you. therefore.’s Ocean has eight largely improvisational instrumental pieces on it which all are in some way evocative of the ocean. There. That should do away with the two people who were still reading. That leaves just me and the screen and the keyboard. OK.

The thing is that this tape is really pretty good. It’s one of the most pleasant listens I’ve had in months. It’s that rare kind of recording that’s almost always welcome, the qualifying “almost” being necessitated by our recent insistence on the point that Streisand and Streisand alone is good music to listen to between the hours of 6:00 and 6:30 a.m. while getting ready to go to work. Ocean is quite successful at its own small project, which is the recording of eight small ocean-evoking quasi-musical pieces. Maybe the new-agey implications of that sound like a turnoff; I know they did to me when I was reading the one-sheet. But we are not talking about your great-mother-ocean pretty-velvety-depths sort of ocean here. We are talking rather about the ocean as Melville understood it, or Homer: that vast value-neutral potentially deadly ultimately unmappable permanently mysterious expanse that was here before we were notochordal and will still be here when we have returned to the trees. There is no question that the ocean is even cooler than Morbid Angel’s “Summoning Redemption,” and therefore. does a decent job of evoking the ocean in all its incomprehensible splendor.

I think the cassette format helps rather than hinders in this effort. It points up how futile the effort is, and in so doing effects a neat reversal: by mocking its own inability to rise to the task, it accomplishes a part of that task, viz. the evoking of the ocean’s vastness. And so we get a song like the opening “Kedge,” so nearly motionless that it’s just barely there at all: a saxophone and a slight bell sound, neither of them doing much, a tape-hiss heavy drone underneath. On the keels of “Kedge,” with whose title I am quite frankly in love, comes “Halyard,” whose title is also lovely: I am reminded of the track listing from Shap by Dead Voices on Air, a long list of words that look like unknown variants of actual known words. (Many of them are place names, as I’m sure the DVOA Army would want me to say, were there any such army.) “Halyard,” though, is self-indulgent noodling of the sort that will get you arrested when I am King: one or two fuzzy guitar chords struck arrhythmically again and again, the ghost of a thousand “experimental” seven-inches from the vinyl boom of ‘90-’92. On vinyl it’d be annoying. On CD it’d be unforgivable. On tape, though -- well, Christ: who are you or I to say what should or shouldn’t be on a tape? It’s just a tape, for cryin’ out loud, it’s not like they promised to do anything monolithic or anything.

Which is why, when the next two numbers -- “Petrel” and “Mariner” -- quietly stun the listener the way they do, it’s a low-key delight. “Petrel” does it with a sing-song seven-note figure played on an accordion over and over again, “Mariner” with buckets of sloshing reverb-for-its-own-sake; both are utterly charming, wholly uneventful, practically nonexistent exercises in emptiness. Played in a room where a person is doing some routine cleaning or paying the monthly bills, these quiet set-pieces do what New Age music is supposed to do but seldom does: that is, they create a profoundly restful mood. You can’t tap your toes to it, you can’t pump your fist in the air to it, and you’d have to be even more excitable than me to get evangelical about it. Instead, one finds, in these inconsequential pieces, something subtly compelling and memorable. The whole second side, with its listlessly plucked banjo and flurries of tambourines, is something I’ve found myself returning to almost compulsively. It’s got the hypnotic allure of a snowy television screen. Some people don’t see any allure in that sort of thing; if you’re one of those people, then Ocean isn’t for you. But if you’re sometimes given to staring at motionless things for longer than you’d generally care to admit and most free jazz leaves your nerves feeling frazzled, then Ocean is worth looking into.

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released April 22, 2015

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