(Eilean Rec., 2014)
I don’t watch a ton of TV, but one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld is the one where George is jeered by his co-workers around a conference table (for some reason I can’t remember), and realizes only after he leaves work that day that he had the perfect response to the hecklers: “Oh yeah? Well the jerk store called, and they’re all out of you!” It’s such an absurd idea of the “perfect comeback” that it makes me laugh just thinking about it. I’m not going to pretend that anyone but me is going to find that funny, but I’m throwing it out there anyway.
The reason I bring this up is because Leigh Toro’s new record, L’Esprit De L’Escalier, is an idiom in French which roughly equates to the idea of “staircase wit.” (I ran it through Google Translate which coughed up the more literal “The Spirit of the Stairs.”) The album description quotes philosopher Denis Diderot: “[A] sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs.” Or, to clarify, it is the “predicament of thinking of the perfect retort too late.” Thus, George’s “jerk store” quip is a perfect example of Diderot’s staircase wit.
So, think of L’Esprit De L’Escalier, the album, as the moments of clarity at the bottom of the stairs, “levelled against” a confusing world arguing incessantly with itself. Toro is clearly like Diderot’s “sensitive man,” and armed with a laptop and found sound and synthesizers and god knows what else, he’s crafted a calm, complex, and reasoned document that glimmers and hovers above whatever chaos may come. I’m driven to wonder about its themes – to me I’m latching on to convergence and separation, ostensibly of human nature, where conscious beings interact and then depart from one another, and “staircase wit” is not necessary following the exchanges. It’s a spiritual feeling, so perhaps “the spirit of the stairs” isn’t such a bad description after all.
Consider track titles such as “Temporary People Passing Through” or “The Grand Union” and you’ll see what I’m getting at. The latter suggests that convergence I mentioned, and there’s an excitement to it, as Toro teases out some processed rhythm as the track progresses. The former hints at the idea that people are both physical and spiritual, and is a reminder that the bellicose confrontations so prevalent in modern society are unnecessary. That convergence (again) is impermanent, and we can either leave positive marks on others, or we can cause them to be frustrated by their “staircase wit” upon our departure. It’s a melancholy meditation on interaction, a bird’s-eye view of wisps of spirit meeting one another.
Toro’s methods for creating these moods are remarkable, and while I’ve hovered over the philosophical implications of these tracks, we shouldn’t forget how incredible these compositions sound. (This is a music blog after all!) On the opener, “Billowing,” there is a sense of chaos as arpeggiated tones bounce against one another like wind chimes in a gale, pierced by a lovely sample of female voice. There’s clarity by its end, when some guitar pattern enters, but the abstractness of its construction adds to its mystery. “Cuckoo Wharf” uses what sounds like actual “wharf” samples in its clear-eyed and refreshing delivery. “Pavilions” is shimmering mastery of guitar usage, and “Stones & Stream” presents an outward calm wherein picturing water rippling over rocks on a streambed is the easiest thing in the world.
With this release, Leigh Toro has reminded us that he’s a formidable presence within an experimental scene that casts a wide net, and L’Esprit De L’Escalier should be celebrated for standing out. And who but Eilean Rec. could release it – the label’s attention to packaging and pressing detail is second to none, and this release continues that trend. Just look at that cover up there! Gorgeous. No need to come back with something witty later, after you’ve digested this. It’s aural pacificity. If you disagree, maybe you need to give the jerk store a call, because, you know…
RIYL: Leland Kirby, Holykindof, BMRN, Vhr-1.7, Aitänna77