I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. In fact, I believe I’ll focus exclusively on netlabel releases for all of April…
(Mine All Mine, 2010)
OK, I gotta come clean. You know how in March and April I’m picking and choosing the records for this column? March was kind of a free-for-all, and the focus of April is netlabel releases. And because Mine All Mine Records has consistently released quality material, I wanted to feature them here in the good ol’ Crate-Digging pages. But there’s a reason I’ve put Düsseldorf, Germany’s Given Willingly at the top of the pile (and it’s a big pile, MAM has quite a backlist) is that I feel somewhat of an obligation to him. You see, Andreas, the man behind Given Willingly, has had the courtesy to actually comment on some of my columns here at Critical Masses, unlike the rest of you lazy freeloaders. Now, before you all shout “Cronyism!” at me (and to be honest, you’re probably right), let me tell you that Confined, Yet We Grow is truly a good album and worth your time – something I would have said regardless of whether Andreas acknowledged our presence or not. But his involvement sure helped my choice. Squeaky wheel, everybody…
Let’s get beyond my self-serving nonsense and give you what you want – a peek inside a creative gem that most of you probably never heard of, and would gloss over without a little help. There is simply so much music out there – how would you have time for it all? Oh, but let me show you the way.
What’s immediately striking about Confined, Yet We Grow is the variety of music idioms in which Andreas works. The record begins misleadingly, with the found-sound collage “A Frontyard Full of Awkward” wherein music box gears click for a minute, then give way to white noise, until that noise is processed into stutters that resemble a rhythm. Multiple choice question: What sort of music logically follows?
a. electronic tones and rhythms, à la Autechre
b. plunky, clinky piano figures, à la Sigur Rós’s Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do
c. more musique concrète, à la a number of artists on the Test Tube netlabel roster
d. Grandaddy-esque fuzz pop
I’m guiding you here, so the answer is obviously a big fat “d” for “duh,” although I was particularly surprised and pleased when I first heard the opening power chords of “Der Kurfürst” (“The Elector”), an instrumental blast recalling the best moments of Under the Western Freeway, complete with synthesizer melodies by song’s end. It’s a nice opening, a good promise, but a red herring. “Frontyard” is the last time you’re going to hear a found-sound collage, and “Der Kurfürst” is the last time the album’s fully going to rock out. And that’s OK. There’s more good stuff to come.
“Shoot the Moon Regeneration” and “Bamboo” present Andreas the singer, and also provide better insight as to what the rest of the album is going to sound like. The basic blueprint draws from the chameleonic emo traditions coming out of the Midwest U.S. indie scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Given Willingly dresses up these guitar-based touchstones in electronics, freshening up a sound that has been largely relegated to an artefact studied mostly for its niche in indie rock history. That kind of makes it sound like I’m pegging Given Willingly with some sort of “Polyvinyl-band-meets-Postal Service knock-off” tag, but that’s far from true, even though I recommend the band if you like Jimmy Tamborello’s and Ben Gibbard’s side project. Andreas instead has that “emo voice,” one that pushes its limits and revels in its cracks and creaks, an imperfect and nakedly honest instrument. If bands such as Joan of Arc, Rainer Maria, and The Promise Ring come to mind, you shouldn’t be faulted. Andreas follows this vocal template by maneuvering around his range in a less-warbly Conor Oberst-esque sing-shout, and it serves the material well.
But only about half the songs on the album have vocals, and it’s this diversity that makes it such an engaging listen. When the vocals are present, the familiar themes of heartache and vulnerability flit through the compositions, the songs filled with vague yous and poetically open-ended situations. In fact, the name “Given Willingly” itself implies vulnerability, an openness of self where one is used for the good of others. Hopefully good, anyway. Although, as in the grand scheme of this style of music, the artist generally reflects the hurt he feels through his medium, and Confined is no different. See specifically the cleverly-reworded “title track” “Confidants, Yet We Grow Apart,” where Andreas pines for a friend who’s departed.
The instrumental tracks hold the most variation and uniqueness, and are always welcome when they appear spread throughout the album. The grandiose gorgeousness of “Young Suns” precedes the shorter, electronic “Redeeming Quantities,” on which electronic elements fight each other for dominance of the scale, teetering on the edge of tonality to great effect. And the lengthily-titled “Something That Doesn’t Need to Be Done but Is Still Done for the Sake of Doing” (how’s that for emo preciousness!) perhaps is the best example of this sounding like a one-man project (it is, after all – although it rarely sounds like it), as a lonely delayed guitar figure is picked amidst a swarm of electronic accompaniment. It sounds like I picture how it was recorded – Andreas playing guitar in an empty room, then hopping on the computer and Pro-Tools-ing the heck out of the surroundings. I found it weird at first, but it grew on me on subsequent listens.
So I hope that the word count belies any sense of cronyism the very existence of this review might suggest, because Confined, Yet We Grow is really an obvious labor of love by its creator, and a worthwhile object of your exploration. Its fifteen tracks expose a subtle complexity, and different nuances are revealed upon each listen. (Although to be fair, closer “Kites” is a 20-minute electronic collage that you may or may not dig into every time – we’ll leave that one up to you, but I didn’t always have the patience for it.) As with most things MAM-related, you can find this for free download from their site. It’s worth it.
RIYL: The American Analog Set, Joan of Arc, The Postal Service