JANDEK – “Athens Saturday” (Album Review)

athens

Athens Saturday – (Corwood Industries-0812)

Track Listing: “Waiting to Die” – Is divided into two sections:

Disc One 52:07 and Disc Two 50:07

Recorded live at Orange Twin Conservation Community, Athens, Georgia    28 July 2012    

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Pouring over a Jandek album now seems less like a forensic investigation than a study in micro-evolution. We now know who the man  is and his proximity to mortality. The specter of death is addressed directly or subliminally in much of his work. This is not a recent development. It certainly crept into his earlier work (see “I Knew You Would Leave” from the album Six and Six). Now, the death narrative is up-close and personal. That being said, “Athens Saturday” is not a bleak exercise. In fact, the textures and ambiance suggest a slow upward migration to light and air.

One thing we can say in the affirmative about Jandek’s art and methodology, he’s not a lazy musician. Also, he has become a distance runner. The track times have become longer on his songs. “Athens Saturday” is a live 2CD set. And both CDs contain one extended piece. One is tempted to interpret this as Jandek’s desire to expand time. I think any 68 year old person would want to do that. And, like most musicians, he no doubt feels safe and invulnerable during the act of creation. You know your time will come, but not while you’re on stage or recording a take.

Jandek shifts a lot of soil to find his golden nuggets of artistic nirvana. This has always been the case with Jandek’s music. The listener’s persistence must match that of the artist to be properly rewarded. However on “Athens Saturday”, the gold to soil ratio weighs heavily in Jandek’s favor. “Athens Saturday” sparkles throughout. This is due as much to Jandek’s remarkable backing ensemble as the man himself. Musician credits are anathema to any Corwood release; so I am left to guess the ensemble format The Representative employed for Athens Saturday. However, I am sure there is a cello and an electrified violin in the mix. The cello provides a slow legato adhesive to the arrangements. Whoever is playing the electric violin is a remarkable musician as regards the use of tone and texture. At many junctures the instruments blend into a unique entity.  Jandek himself turns in a career performance on piano and vocals. And, somewhere I hear a synthesizer in the mix, as well as percussion.  The piano work is delicate and controlled; echoing his gargantuan nine volume piano workout, “The Song of Morgan”. The Artist’s vocal parts are still in the realm of spoken word. However, at certain points Jandek sticks his big toe into the pool of conventional pitch singing. There is a wispy tonality I have yet to hear on his other works. The best comparison would be some of Laurie Anderson’s more accessible and comforting verbalizing from her “United States” period. http://corwoodindustries.com/

It’s not all silk and creamy center. There are interludes where the intensity of the moment combined with the string section’s more keening timbers, disturb the peace. However, these moments are few and far between. Assailable moments on “Athens Saturday” are difficult to find.

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What follows is commentary on the music found on Athens Saturday (times are approximate):

Disc One – Opens with what sounds like a bass clarinet, a trumpet sound blends in and soon morphs into an electronically treated violin. Jandek himself contributes some very restrained piano. There is a shimmering synthetic wash in the background. The motifs are slow, legato notes sustained and interweaving. At 5:00 minutes some percussive rumbling in the deep background occurs. And the violin starts to engage in some textured dissonance.  At 8:00 minutes some very mellow and pleasing electronics creep into the landscape. The shimmering sine wave from earlier in the piece reappears as well as a tremolo effect from some unknown instrument. The Representative may be creating his keyboard sound with a digital module because suddenly the timbre of his piano work sounds electric with some celeste overtones. The mysterious thump of a bass drum still issues intermittent reports from the depths of the background mix.

At 8:50 Jandek’s voice appears. Soft and muffled.   At 10:38 Jandek intones:

“Let’s go for a swim……I can’t wait for the shift to end.”

The overall effect of the piece strikes me as coming from the perspective of someone suffering a fever. One of those consciousness blurring fevers where the dream state and the waking state co-mingle in a repetitive mundane madness. The speaker may be a caregiver or even the mother breaking through to fog of dementia. Maybe none of this is true. But, the textures and mood of the piece are so evocative and persistent that your brain starts working from that vantage point. The violin starts asserting itself more forcefully in the mix. ‘Sawing’ tones that are electronically processed.

At 13:20 Jandek intones:

“Wait, it’s summertime, let’s lay in the tall grass….(unintelligible) We can have a picnic. Did you see that great movie?”

Then, “Oh, I love being here with you. Sex, drugs, alcohol, friends, dogs and me……”

I’m guessing that Jandek is free associating lyrically.  The puzzling monolouge continues.  His piano figures are as sticky and delicate as cotton candy and are accompanied by the constant sawing of the string section. The low register instrument is an ominous presence that vacillates between sounding like a bass clarinet and a cello. So static and repetitive is the mood, any minute variation takes on magnified significance.

At about twenty minutes the landscape quiets down to almost nothing.  Jandek  finds himself in a question and answer session with himself. With the most revealing exchange being:

“Don’t you know how to live?’  

“No, not really…..”  

“What do you know how to do?”  

“I know how to die….living is dying”

The accompanying music seems to have found a quietude to match these very private ruminations. Fluty, echoed tones with Bartok inspired noodling in the lower end of the piano.   At 27:00 we have water music. Shimmering, deep, translucent tones. Jandek continues to verbalize atonally. The instrumentation has congealed into a third entity. A wash of sound. Very reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “No Pussyfooting” era.

As we approach 30:00 the instrumentation suddenly subsides -as if on cue- to a very faint electronic ripple with some nuanced string harmonics. The Representative takes the reigns with some and barely audible piano filagre.   At 33:15 there is near silence as Jandek starts making a more aggressive (but still restrained) statement with some chord based piano improvisations. He suddenly switches his piano setting to a more electronic sound as he begins to describe the joys of a summer picnic. It’s all first person narrative in present tense, like he’s describing remembered images as his life is passing before his eyes while dying. A happy time described by an unhappy man. Black and white (mind’s eye) Polaroids from days of future past. Again we hear phantom drums, barely audible but increasingly frequent. 41:00 minutes into the piece, the improvisations are more adventurous and atmospheric. Jandek’s vocalizations appear and recede intermittently. His voice is calm and soothing.   At this juncture the violinist finally seems to have run out of ideas and is sawing pointlessly. Jandek free associates lyrics and contributes some absent minded piano figures. Minutes 43:00 to 47:00 is the least eventful and inspired period of this side. At about 48:00  The Artist seems to have regained his improvisational footing with some nice upper register tinkling with a more electric sound. The subject of dying is broached yet again. At fifty minutes, Jandek cuts loose with some nice Argent style electric piano runs. The meandering suddenly abates with side one’s final words:

“Now you understand”……  

Disc Two – A continuation of the piece heard on disc one, with somebody imploring “…take a nap”. The narrator then announces they are going to Morocco. Synthesized calliope sounds enter and remind me of an old fashioned analog synth sequencer.  Jandek carries on with an imagined dialog in a voice that sounds considerably younger than his years. There is no menace in his voice.  At 06:00 the sparkly synth textures recede into the background and the violin takes over with some fairly unremarkable, mournful riffing.   The interior monologue continues with some discreet percussion. And, at 09:15 Jandek describes:

“Shiny blue day with a touch of gray”  

A short while later, Jandek describes a fantasy involving two knights (black vs. white) squaring off in a battle to the death. Perhaps a subconscious description of the battle between good and evil that resides in all of us? All the while, the accompanying music is perfectly and appropriately dreamy. Soon after the knight’s battle scene, Jandek speaks the words:

“It was just a matter of time”

The word “time” melts into the music and slowly falls into a swirl of tone and color.  The event lasts all of five seconds, but it’s the most remarkable example of musical synchronicity that I have ever heard in a live performance.  At 13:00, Jandek introduces some very editorial and staccato piano figures. This shifts the mood entirely from the medieval murk of the knight smack-down to upbeat, mundane chatter regarding the location of books, napkins and a mysterious tent. The mention of the mysterious tent coincides with some spooky, echoed violin riffs. And, I’m struck at this point how lyric and music seem to be driving each other in divine inspiration.

At 18:30 we find ourselves in the updraft of a very playful musical swell. At 21:00 minutes Jandek describes black snakes slithering into a body of water. One is obviously tempted to interpret this as his ‘hellhound on my trail’ moment. And, indeed that might be true; because talk turns away from napkins and books to the description of a cat biting an arm off, and an unknown bystander getting hit by a car. This darkening turn is appropriately back-dropped by murk and menace in the music culminating in the words:

“Maybe you just stop breathing someday, and fall down, and don’t get up.”  

“No matter how hard they try to get you up, you can’t see them.”  

The above words are followed by a static musical drone that strongly evokes the rhythmic repetition of a train on a railroad track. The long black train?   At 34:00 minutes we emerge from musical darkness with some sprite piano work that has an obvious umbilical link to “The Song of Morgan”.  The mood shifts yet again to happier images of boat rides, carnivals, beer, martinis and baseball. It seems like Jandek is dating himself back to the summer of his life. Perhaps all the way back to his pre-adolescent self memorialized in the cover photo of the album, “The Song of Morgan”.  The music to these remembrances (real or imagined) is appropriately melancholic. Descriptions of time and events residing firmly in the past. Indeed, at 39:00  Jandek kills the nostalgia buzz with the words:

“But wait!” It’s too late for all these things”  

At 40:00 a dark, distant, bass drum thunders like a far off storm approaching. The remembrances still flow but turn darker and less optimistic, at 43:00:

“Not now, Not on Sunday afternoon.”  

“Maybe tomorrow there will be something to do. Something worthwhile……  

…..like getting wet with rain.”  

The last few minutes of side two meander. Dreamy, spacy, surreal, like floating down some existential stream. Jandek saves his best for last, uttering his final words:

“TIME, THE END OF ALL HIS DAYS WAS STARING HIM IN HIS FACE.   AND HE SIMPLY COULD NOT LOOK AWAY”

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“Athens Saturday” is a live album. However, live albums in Jandekland do not serve the same function as live albums in the commercial music world. Live albums in Pop and Rock are generally contractual obligation releases, or a consolidation-restatement of an artist’s classic repertoire, or time filler between studio releases. Jandek’s live albums do not document or memorialize an accumulated repertoire. They are simply part of the creative continuum. As an alternative to studio recordings; Jandek’s live albums are field recordings of new music. The live-performance dynamic provides a different angle and energy source that informs the artist’s intuition and muse.

“Athens Saturday” is an audacious and remarkable work. Whereas “Houston Saturday” employed dissonance and discord that evoked comparisons to Jackson Pollock, “Athens Saturday” is expansively cinematic, and brings to mind Fellini  at his most eerie. In the foreground is Jandek’s childlike uber-realism juxtaposed against the misty, shape-shifting, alien landscapes of the music.

If  Jandek’s goal is to stay out front of us and confound us, he has succeeded with “Athens Saturday”. Once art becomes defined or quantified, it starts to wither on the vine. Jandek’s art continues to be living art. It must never learn how to die.

With “Athens Saturday”, Jandek can sit tall in the saddle and finally stake credible claim to the epithet …… genius.

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To buy Jandek click here >>>>>>http://corwoodindustries.com/

 

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