It’s good to have If Thousands back after an eight-year hiatus, a break precipitated by “marriage, babies, new beginnings, growth & change” and which pretty much sums up why the Duluth duo of Aaron Molina (guitars) and Christian McShane (other stuff, including erhu, accordion, cello, pipe organ, Ensoniq Mirage, Moog, and Roland Juno-6) might have needed a breather. I’ll tell you, having a kid is exhausting, and requires laser focus. But I stopped making music long ago myself – maybe it’s time for me to come out of, er, hiatus (as in, “hiding”)?
But this isn’t about me – If Thousands! Following their blueprint of one-take recording (no overdubs), Molina and McShane have crafted For, a thirteen-track odyssey through experimental ambient passages and mood pieces that fits right in with their previous work – it’s like they didn’t even take a break! – and explores new avenues of their chosen genre, adding textures and melody in seemingly impossible doses. You might be fooled into thinking that this was nod-off headphone tunage to doze to, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did – the band, who never plays live (except for that one tour with Alan Sparhawk years ago) did this performance called “Slumber” in 2005, during which audience members were encouraged to sleep through all the bands. (Seriously.) But if that’s where you leave off, you’re missing out on the subtle power the duo injects into their recordings, the emotional heft with which they construct some truly amazing sonics.
For’s thirteen tracks are all numbered but alternately presented in numeral form and spelled out: “1,” “two,” “3,” etc., and track thirteen is called “lucky” for some reason. (Get it?) So there isn’t really any sort of narrative within the song titles, such as “Io,” or “With a Voice as Big as a Tree” (two of my favorite older If Thousands songs). I’m therefore left to my own devices. The cover lends a bit of help in that it’s exactly how I would imagine dusk in Duluth in deep winter – cold and gray, but soft and enchanting. Actually, that’s about as right as it gets – it feels otherworldly yet natural, like the music itself, and even if a snowball fight erupted, its sound would be dampened to near silence. As a listener, I’m as all right with that as I can get.
It begins as pastorally as suggested, with the clean, droning guitar notes of “1” gradually gaining coloration from chord formation (and whatever keyboard-sounding instrument McShane is playing). It feels like the beginning of a lengthy post rock experience, but instead of ratcheting up tension before divebombing into catharsis, “1” remains gorgeously optimistic and level. There is indeed some distortion that creeps in toward the end, but it’s merely colorful – it’s the equivalent of the sun finally peeking over the horizon on a frigid morning. As an invested listener, I want the feeling of quiet hope it engenders to last for a long time.
The palette shifts to pensive for “two,” and by the end of “3” If Thousands sound positively discordant, underscoring the range Molina and McShane are able to demonstrate. On “four,” dusty spaghetti western strains of a violin (I think – violin is not listed in the instruments McShane uses, but it sounds too high to be a cello) wail over acoustic picking, perfect lonesome accompaniment to a Nick Cave and Warren Ellis–scored film such as The Proposition. By “5,” it’s become clear to me that If Thousands and Shane Carruth, who scored each of his brilliant films Primer and Upstream Color himself, are kindred spirits.
I could just immerse myself all day in describing the individual experiences I have with each song, but I’d rather not bore you to death. It’s the latter point, though, the spiritual connection to the sounds of Primer, that truly verbalizes If Thousands’ strengths – they were made to soundtrack images. And they have, indeed, provided music for a few, hard-to-find films. Their music begs to be visualized, as my imagination so desires after diving headfirst into For. But until that happens with these new compositions, I’ll have to be content with them as magnificent headphone fodder.
RIYL: A Whisper in the Noise, Shane Carruth, Stars of the Lid, Brian Eno, old Hubble Telescope images of the Pillars of Creation