April 25, 2016

TEST SPIN: _____ , Paralanguage

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“Our music doesn’t have words and neither does our name,” ______ write on their Bandcamp, and often state at their shows. Last Friday, the duo (comprised of Brad Nathanson ’17 and Carsten Thue-Bludworth ’17) released Paralanguage, their second album following August 2015’s the linden sessions on Ithaca’s student-run Electric Buffalo Records. Recorded at the same Linden Avenue home as their previous release, Paralanguage offers 37 and a half minutes of complete sonic immersion. It is, at points, soothing, angular, sprawling, concise and susceptible to having many more descriptors tacked on to it. Yet, I offer a slight modification of _____’s mantra-of-sorts: not only does their music “not have words,” it doesn’t need words to convey interesting, intricate ideas and overwhelming moments of beauty.

In her 1996 essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag decries “the odd vision by which something we have learned to call ‘form’ is separated off from something we have learned to call ‘content.’” Sontag troubles the distinction between what is said and how it is said; expression itself, she argues, is a communicative process. Nathanson and Thue-Bludworth similarly mount an offensive against the rigid, often boring demand that music have some easily discernible text or narrative to convey.

As such, a note that _____ include on Paralanguage’s Bandcamp album page suggests one entry point. “Paralanguage – the nonlexical component of communication by speech. ex. Intonation, pitch, and speed of speaking, hesitation, noises, gesture, and facial expressions,” the note states. _____’s focus on context free from text, on expression in and of extends a challenge, and also an invitation, to critics and listeners. Paralanguage defies many remnants of literary and film criticism that music criticism still hasn’t shaken. The focus on momentum, buildup and climax, the desire to cast musicians as pro- or antagonists and the fixation on theme and mood all fail to apply to Paralanguage. In their place, _____ provides a number of interesting criteria for listening that notably don’t wear out after a few listens.

For one, Paralanguage carefully configures and represents space. Whereas many bands employ reverb and other effects to mirror lyrical meanings and emotions, the moments of swelling and constricting space in Paralanguage just happen. Although _____ requires the listener to hear the album “continuously from start to finish” and includes a continuous mix on their Bandcamp, I need to slightly violate that wish to specifically note some moments. Towards the end of “%,” synthesizers and Thue-Bludworth’s drumming intensify and shift behind Nathanson’s guitar riffs. Just as _____ seem to approach the song’s apex … I’ll let the listeners hear for themselves. Maybe it’s a critical cop-out on my end, but _____’s refusal of description and reduction to a succinct phrase divorced from the musical sphere is an integral part of Paralanguage.

_____’s desire to break from textual and medial boundaries (denying the listener’s supposed right to listen to tracks out of order) does not entail a disengagement from other musical material. Again, without divulging the reference and ruining the joy of realizing it, “^” plays with and recasts phrases from a famous British rock band. Consequently, “^” swirls up a hazy déjà vu; it is music-stuck-in-your-head bastardized, obliterated and resurrected. It evidences how delving into remembrance and musical recollection can excavate new thoughts and textures.

Still, _____ also exhibit a willingness to abandon the riff, to abandon and modify any patterns that they find themselves inhabiting. This tendency arguably sets _____ apart from their most obvious if not closest predecessors, Don Caballero. The parallels between the two groups are hard to ignore: the simultaneous rhythmic unpredictability and technicality, the equal importance of drums, guitar and keyboards during the song-writing process, the interlocking melodic lines that hover in tonal grey areas. Yet, _____ push the boundary further; Don Caballero often sets off their larger phrase changes with pauses in the song (start listening to “The Peter Criss Jazz” around the 7:23 mark) whereas _____ shift at a moment’s notice. One approach is not necessarily better than the other, but _____’s aligns with their apparent goal of confronting many listeners’ inclination to convert music into description.

In the end, however, Paralanguage succeeds due to Nathanson and Thue-Bludworth’s skill. Although only two albums into their career, _____ already possess a unique tone, characterized by Thue-Bludworth’s conscious, constrained drumming and Nathanson’s ability to meld the emotional, atmospheric wandering melodies of post-rock with a details-focused math-rock touch. With Nathanson and Thue-Bludworth producing, writing, recording and mixing Paralanguage, and mastering it with Gil Israel ’16, the album is a hyper-focused, carefully constructed vessel of the duo’s ideas. In less than 40 minutes, _____ both remember and pioneer music, recast it and reconstruct it.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. You can reach him at [email protected].