Early Birthday Gifts to Myself: Steve Jansen’s Slope and Thomas Feiner’s The Opiates (Revised)
Over the last several days, I’ve told a few friends about one of the stranger things I do to amuse myself. The procedure generally goes this way. I go out somewhere and return home late tired, feeling somewhat inspired and more than likely inebriated. Knowing how compromised I am, I set things in motion. That is, I check one of my physical or mental wish lists and order a disc or two. When I awake the next morning, I can recall only that I’ve ordered something, but I can’t remember exactly what. Over the following days, I eagerly await the package’s arrival, ready to be surprised and delighted at whatever it contains. Usually, I’m not disappointed. Such was the case when I returned from Albuquerque Sunday a week ago to find two discs I ordered as gifts to myself from Samadhi Sound: Steve Jansen’s Slope and Thomas Feiner and Anywhen’s The Opiates (Revised).
Both recordings have a lot to recommend them. Each inhabits that boozy, ethereal universe that so much of the music I love does. The fact that they both are on the label created by one the musicians whose work I adore—David Sylvian—doesn’t hurt. Sylvian’s work merits a post of its own, and I’m surprised that I haven’t written about him already. Then again, the omission is just as glaring where Talk Talk, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Cocteau Twins and many others are concerned. If you really want to hear, and I do mean hear, what I have to say about Sylvian, check out the two-hour focus show I did on WHPK back in 2006 devoted to Sylvian: hour one and hour two.
Jansen, the brother of Sylvian, is someone whose work I know from his having been a member of Japan (with Sylvian) and from his work on other recordings, such as the not-so-successful one-off recording he did with Richard Barbieri (also of Japan) under the moniker the Dolphin Brothers. Slope is the first of his solo projects that I’ve auditioned, and it’s an illuminating listen. That is, there are times when a musician makes a solo recording that does the obvious: feature tracks with that person’s main instrument as the centerpiece. Jansen opts for something different, a recording that focuses more on texture rather than virtuosity.
Sure, the opening track “Grip” is a primer on the possibilities of percussion instruments (including the piano), but only initially. The layers accrue as the track proceeds, and when the horns enter shortly after the three-minute mark, it becomes clear that the song and the album are ambient soundscape projects. Without taking anything away from artists who produce “chill-out” music, I have to say that this recording is a thinking person’s chill-out recording, one where rather than zoning out one digs in, savoring every sonic nuance. The second track, “Sleepyard,” though the weakest on the album—marred by a lackluster vocal performance by Jansen(?)—nonetheless confirms my characterization. While the tempos never rise to a point that would inspire vigorous dancing, the album is still inspiring. Other standouts include the tracks with vocals—“Cancelled Pieces” (featuring Anja Garbarek, daughter of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek), “Sow the Salt” (featuring the Leonard Cohen-esque voice of Thomas Feiner), and “Playground Martyrs” and “Ballad of a Deadman” (featuring Sylvian). The remaining instrumentals are just as compelling—with “Conversation Over” being the album’s finest track. It begins with sustained chords and percussive noise (as well as feedback) creating the bed that will support other elements. For a time, it seems as though the opening is all there is to the track until a transition begins before the two-minute mark. Sure enough, when the drums enter shortly thereafter, the track lifts off, and the sustained chords sounds less elegiac, more hopeful. As I wrote to Kim the Sunday a week ago when I first heard the disc, this track is one embodiment of all that I wish I could do musically. If you’re interested in hearing some samples, point your web browser here.
Feiner’s album, originally released in 2002 and “revised”—i.e., re-recorded, remixed, and augmented—for this reissue, is cut from the same cloth but weaved in more resplendent fashion. The ominous string tremelos that open “The Siren Songs” announce another ambient project, but one with a difference. They create a scene that grows richer when the drums enter along with the bass shortly before the one-minute mark. While it might sound otherwise, this is a filmic rock record rather than a soundtrack. When the chorus comes, and Feiner sings “I want to drown in your precious arms / I want to listen to the siren songs / She got me down into the water / And she got me holding on…,” it’s clear that you’re listening to a deep meditation on the perils of being in love with a not-so-perfect someone. If you can imagine uplifting music made by a Dead Can Dance/Craig Armstrong hybrid, you’ll have some idea how this sounds (especially since his vocals on the track evoke those of Brendan Perry). Tracks like “Scars and Glasses” and “Postcard” work in a similar fashion, starting languidly and spaciously but eventually providing their own surprises and taking on broader dimensions. The same is true of some of the later cuts, including “All That Numbs You” and “For Now.”
The latter is one of the two tracks that further explains the parenthetical “Revised” in the album title. The other, the disc’s clear standout, is “Yonderhead.” Everyone I’ve troubled to audition it has been blown away. In keeping with the filmic sensibility I attributed to the disc’s opener, this one expands the conceit in majestic fashion. It begins with soft piano chords, pizzicato strings and a barely-there acoustic guitar, which are soon joined by rattling brushes on a snare drum. When Feiner’s vocal enters around 1:45, the rough edges of his voice stand in stark contrast to the lush atmospherics that support it. The entire arrangement builds to a crescendo that doesn’t quite reach its apex with the first chorus: “Lend me a life / Put me on a loop again / Define / Define me yonderhead.” What’s breathtaking in that chorus is the way Feiner caresses and extends the words “lend,” “loop” and the first “-fine.” The build starts again with the second verse, and we come closer to the (promised?) climax with the second chorus. A soft interlude follows that is really the third build in disguise. The feint starts to unravel around 5:28 as Feiner vaguely vocalizes the word “lend,” and when it becomes clear what he’s singing (around 6:31), a listener is moving, finally, toward the climax. It’s one of most satisfying dramatic rock productions I’ve heard in years. If you need some visuals to seal the deal before you purchase the album from Samadhi Sound, there are videos for three of the tracks available here. I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed…