October 7, 2022

Zelienople – Sleeper Coach (Loose Thread Recordings)

Hardly had I begun listening to this – the Zelienople sophomore (alt.title?) – than I realised I was in trouble. Barely twenty seconds into the opening track – Sea Bastards – and thinking – Ligeti? Lamonte Young? A Reminder period Radiohead? Slint? Tortoise? – I was gone, done for, drained, vanquished, defeated. I have to say that I can hardly remember enjoying a first acquaintance with a new band more, nor wanting to write about one less.

I do think about it sometimes – the definitive absurdity inherent in trying to write about music. There’s a non-attributable aphorism that gets aired from time to time under different guises – that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I do consider that a particularly inept remark – evidently made by someone with no interest in or understanding of either dance or architecture in general, or the work of people like Rudolf Laban, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharpe, Rosemary Butcher, or the Bauhaus Group in particular. But the motivation is sound: writing about music is an act of translation – one which, the better the music, the greater the redundancy of the translation. It’s there – there it is – just listen – it’s self-evidently doing its job – it doesn’t need explaining. But this funny symbiosis has developed, as part of the culture show, between the musicians and the translator-critics whereby, in order to draw the attention of a wider-than-local audience to their work, they (the musicians) submit – more or less reluctantly – to the fatuous attentions of the scribblers, in the hope that someone might find a way of talking about it that says more about it (the music) than about themselves.

Fat chance.

Zelienople is a quartet from Chicago, although that’s about as relevant as saying that milk comes from cows (but why they’re named after a small town in Pennsylvania remains a mystery – prolly cos they liked the sound of it). Their record label – Loose Thread – offers ‘the drone-based legacy of 60’s American minimalism, 70’s ambient rock, 80’s space rock, and 90’s electro-acoustic improv music’ as a descriptive starting-point. Although meant to be helpfully generic, this is actually a little misleading, in that it makes them sound rather nerdish and anal, whereas their music is the opposite – intelligent, certainly, drone-based, certainly, and restrained, but generously so, dispensing blissful packets of psychic balm with the reassuring authority of a seldom-seen but much-loved gay uncle. And the ensemble! They sound as though they’ve been working and playing together for at least a lifetime, hewing away in the mapless caves of the unconscious, piling up a hard-won mountain of ore from which to smelt this singular ten-tracked musical nugget.

Sleeper Coach has to be one of the most laid-back albums I’ve ever heard. I swear there’s some kind of a subliminal hypnagogic trigger thing going on: whenever I’m listening on headphones I seem regularly to doze off around track 6 – Corner Lot – only to stir back into fuller hyper-enhanced attention for track 7 – Don’t Be Lonely. If Zelienople were with a more profiteering bunch like EMI, this would have been the one they’d have released as a single two months earlier to whet our appetites: singer Matt Christensen’s whispery close-mic’d high voice inserted like a sleepy fey over the slow-roiling sedimentary depositions of a repeated two-bar guitar riff. The particular flavours in this noise-soup have been derived from entirely non-synthetic sources: Christensen plays bass, guitar, and organ, Brian Harding plays B-flat and bass clarinets, piano, and guitar, Mike Weis plays drum kit (as sparingly as if it were made of antique glass), vibraphone, and various eastern percussion instruments, and Neil Jendon plays guitar. Put all those together and you’re clearly going to end up, so long as you manage to avoid kitsch, klezmer or Jewish weddings, with something delicious and wholesome but not a little odd, so it comes as no surprise to learn that they’ve been engaged lately in supporting bands like Múm and Tristeza, and bill-sharing with people like The Decemberists and Gravenhurst – magnificently quirky left-fielders all.

Listen (and try and stay awake) and attend – the Sleeper Coach won’t necessarily end up taking you where it says on the ticket, but you’re in safe hands, and (trust me, I’m a critic) you’ll be glad you stayed the ride.