by Craig Short
I think my least favorite part of writing about music is quoting lyrics. I don’t want to quote too many (why not just listen to the album?) and I don’t want to ignore the words completely (your approval of me as a competent listener keeps me awake at night). So I strike a balance: identify the best zingers, quote a few deep tracks so it looks like I actually listened to the thing, convince myself I missed the best lyric by not listening hard enough, and then start the whole nasty process over. Which is a long way of saying that this album is great because the only non-French language lyrics I can discern are “no” and “absolutely.” Try and annotate that, genius.com.
Jokes aside: what an enveloping piece of work this is, even without many words! Limpid As The Solitudes is the second collaborative effort by two ambient-leaning musicians who are alike in mindset but not in technique. French musician Félicia Atkinson creates and layers together sounds of great intensity, gluing bell tones, field recordings, and spoken word poetry together in unpredictable shapes. It’s the sonic equivalent of an asteroid field– what will come barreling toward you next? American musician Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, on the other hand, sculpts sound in great, crashing, pillowy waves; it’s more My Bloody Valentine than Steve Reich. Listen to ‘Love’s Refrain’ the next time you’re running through a sunlit field and you’ll get where this guy’s coming from. Together, these two are an ambient dream team, pure and simple. Fractured sound art meets, and is tempered by, patient, slow moving drones. One stimulates and the other soothes.
Limpid As The Solitudes is centered around drones, and explores some of the different ways that a simple held tone can be interpreted. ‘And The Flowers Have Time For Me’ opens the album with a plain synth chord, kept flat and nearly unchanging throughout the piece’s almost 6 minute runtime. Around it billows an ever-shifting landscape of crackling static, chiming piano chords, creaking doors, and the sounds of what might be a bus station. It would be disorienting if not for those stubborn synth notes droning throughout, acting as a common thread to tie the other scattered elements into some sort of narrative. The Drone: a source of stability.
Next is ‘Her Eyelids Say.’ When I came to the end of track one, the drone had started to become grating. “It’s over now,” I thought. “That was the stick, but this next one will be the carrot.” Silly me. That’s not how art works. The second song opens with an almost identical drone, but this one is more dissonant. Bugs twitter and buzz around it– or do they? It becomes less and less clear whether that sound is a cicada or a cold electronic emulation of one, whether that’s a bee or the dying gurgles of a dialup modem. My thoughts turned to the other images a drone evokes– a stuck MIDI note, a flat-lining heart monitor, or someone dead at a keyboard with his forehead pressing the keys down for one long, disturbing swan song. The Drone: an omen of stagnation.
When the drone eventually shifted about seven minutes in, I felt that I’d earned it, like a wildlife photographer who waits hours for the bear to pass by or the bird to swoop in for a kill. The second piece is taxing. It’s interesting, yes, but not exactly pleasant. Luckily, the last two are more gentle. ‘Indefatigable Purple’ starts with another dissonant and unyielding cluster chord, but builds up layer upon layer of sound over it. Static, harp notes, and indistinct voices blossom and expand in lovely, patient arcs until the drone is almost forgotten among the ripples it has created. The Drone: an instigator.
Last is ‘All Night I Carpenter,’ a lengthy (nearly 18 minutes) summation of all that has come before it. A series of thick, slow bass notes stretch across the song, but they become secondary to the chimes, tweets, and close-mic’d poetry bubbling up and simmering throughout. And at the very end, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma allows himself a few minutes of the flowery-smog-cloud-shoegaze he so enjoys making, and then it’s over.
I don’t quite know what I’m meant to make of all of this, but that’s ambient music for you. I do know that it’s often a beautiful album, and that the climax of ‘Indefatigable Purple’ is a jam. But something else has kept me coming back to these songs, and that’s the other side of them that isn’t beautiful, that’s willfully difficult and tests patience and ears alike. Listen, these are the kinds of people who use words like “indefatigable” and list magnetic tape as an instrument on their songs– of course the stuff they make is challenging and academic. Kind of like spicy food, it’s not meant to be completely pleasant. But also like spicy food, it’s usually worth it.