Saturday, July 11, 2009

First Listen: Jandek, Helsinki Saturday and Not Hunting for Meaning

I am still no closer to writing that massive tm3am column on Texas mystery man Jandek, so I guess I'll have to content myself with blogging about the new stuff here as it comes out. A quick summary, though: Jandek is a musician unlike any other. He plays a dark brand of improvised sort-of-blues that, on first listen, can sound random and off-putting. He's also amazingly prolific - as of these two, he's made 59 albums, all self-released on Corwood Industries.

He still does no interviews, has no website, and does no promotion for his work whatsoever. In 2004, 26 years after he started making albums, he played live for the first time, and now he does 10 or so scattered concerts a year, all over the globe. The live shows are always new material, always with a completely different crop of backing musicians, and always word-of-mouth affairs that draw small crowds.

I might be making Jandek sound too appealing - his material is usually coarse, difficult and depressing, especially lately. His lyrics are suicidally dark, and delivered in an atonal bellow that rarely fits smoothly with the music. But I bristle at the notion that Jandek can't play. You don't play guitar for 30 years without picking up a few things, and while the early albums were markedly clumsy, later ones have found Jandek perfecting his idiosyncratic art.

Helsinki Saturday is his 11th live album, and it contains only one track: the 63:32 "Sleeping in the Dawn." It's an instrumental piece, Jandek on piano accompanied by harpist Iro Haarla. It rambles, but it sets an effective mood - some of it sounds like a kid's first fumblings on the piano, making noise at the high and low ends, but some is strikingly pretty. It ebbs and flows as it goes along, but it's never less than engaging.

The quality is crisp, but there is persistent background noise - apparently, the Avanto Festival crowd talked all the way through this performance. But since this music has a haunting, faraway quality to it anyway, the ghostly voices at its edges only add to the ambiance, I think. This is, instantly, one of my favorite Jandek albums, and as a side note, "Sleeping in the Dawn" is now the longest single song I own: it beats Sleep's "Dopesmoker" by one second.

Album 59, Not Hunting for Meaning, is more like what you'd expect from latter-period Jandek. It is acoustic guitar and vocals, and it sounds like the guitar is in something close to standard tuning. The first two songs are short (4:10 and 4:55), and the most aggressive, howling, crazy-ass blues the Representative from Corwood has given us in a long time. "Front Porch Shimmy" in particular is a shouted angst-fest, and "Stay Me Here" finds Jandek reaching for that madman's falsetto on almost every line.

The third and final song, "Silent Wander," is longer (29:23), slower, and more typical. It's dissonant and depressing stuff, of course, but it's no different from what the Rep has delivered on more than a dozen occasions in the recent past. The playing is nervous and kinetic throughout - the easiest thing for a novice player to do is find two chords and strum them, but Jandek's playing is all over the place, constantly moving. This is why I say the man can play, and this is just how he wants his music to sound.

For more on Jandek, check out Seth Tisue's site. I would never recommend Jandek's stuff for casual listening, but once you're sucked into his world, it all makes a strange sort of sense.

1 comment:

  1. It's nice to see someone, outside of the Jandek mailing list, take the time to actually engage with the recent Jandek albums. Each live album is completely different from the others, and the recent return to vcl/gtr studio albums (after the period doing acapella albums and fretlass bass/vcl albums)has not really generated that much interest in the blogosphere, and that's a shame because every album is a unique creation and there are always tracks where he's doing something new on the gtr and where he's coming up w/ distinctive imagery in his lyrics and distinctive vocal delivery. I've appreciated all the commentaries you've done on Jandek albums here, and if they cause people to investigate the albums and pick a few of them up (and they are always inexpensive), then you've done a lot to help Jandek get his unique vision out to the world. Thanks!
    Look forward to your future commentaries...

    Bill S.
    (San Antonio, Texas)