Review of Monocoastal [12k1063]

Tokafi (.COM)

Talking directly to you: Personal stories over a bottle of red wine.

Few artists allow their audience to get as close as Marcus Fischer. Throughout 2009, the Portland-based guitarist maintained a blog where he posted a new thing each day: Pencil drawings of clouds. Toy camera photos. Pictures taken at night from his parent’s house in Los Angeles. Narrow spaces and blurry pixels. Screen shots of music sessions on his laptop. More toy camera photos. A self-sewn mustard & chocolate coloured felt bag. A punchcard music box. As if corresponding with these intimate images, his work seems to take on an intimate, almost confessional tone. It speaks of places he has visited. Transitions his life has undergone. People he has met. Feelings that have stayed with him. And yet, it doesn’t diligently chronicle these events. It is not actual facts that interest Fischer, but what mind and memory do to them: If his Polaroid snapshots, some of them included in the Monocoastal artwork, are sometimes blurry and washed-out, then so are the inner images conjured up by his music, leaving nothing but an emotional residue and an overwhelming yearning for the few things that really matter in life. Compared to the sometimes scientifically precise processes of some of his sound art colleagues, the cinnamon-tinged minimalism of his oeuvre has an almost archaic touch to it: There’s a story behind every piano note, an anecdote to each melancholically strummed ukulele chord.

Just as his previous solo releases, which were either tied to his “thing-a-day” project (For Friends this Winter) or to a series of curatory concerts (For Sleeping it Off), Monocoastal relates to a longer, clearly delineated period in the artist’s life, chronicalling Fischer’s oscillating movements along the USA’s west coast. Documentary precision was never a goal. Partly because the sheer diversity of events, including stints with rock bands, early attempts at sonic experimentalism and moments of pure, undiluted pop, were at odds with his intention of creating seamless textures imbued with a coherent mood. Partly, too, because, to Fischer, times moves at a different speed in art than it does in real life: Two decades are compressed into barely three quarters of an hour here, a long journey reduced to a string of seemingly unspectacular and short scenes. It is a striking antithesis to conceptual or programmatic music in which the narrative invariably unfolds along a carefully mapped-out narrative, and a soft-spoken, yet fervent case in favour of focusing on the small things, puny events, little whispers and fleeting, incidental contacts that really decide where we come from and who we are. On Monocoastal, Fischer isn’t writing the story of his life – he is recounting it over a bottle of red wine. The plot is loosing its direction at times, the words are becoming vague, the narrative is shifting out of focus. And yet, at the end of the evening, you’ll leave with the feeling of having just learned more about this man than by reading his CV or browsing his press archive.

As personal as these intimations may be, they are also part of a wider artistic movement that is quickly gaining in momentum. It is certainly no coincidence if 12k label head Taylor Deupree should refer to Monocoastal as an album he would have loved to record himself: The proximity to the current 12k aesthetic is poignant, with which it shares a tendency to balance the spontaneity and freshness of a live performance with meticulous studio operations, treating texture and space as integral parts of a composition and focusing on warm and organic sounds with an instantly familiar resonance. As part of this philosophy, arrangements are cleansed of all superfluous elements and minute attention is awarded to detail. One of the most remarkable feats about Fischer’s style is how the charmingly grainy ticks, plops, whirrs and hums of the charismatic field recordings woven into the pieces, don’t just serve as timbral ornamentation, but actually seem to directly interact with his melodies and harmonic progressions. Clearly, just like Deupree, Fischer’s work may occasionally sound as though it had been captured in freewheeling improvisation. But in reality, it leaves very little to chance: From the way that the dark resonance of a piano serves as an all but inaudible Leitmotif on opener „Atlas Waves“ to the positioning of „Shape to Shore“, which cuts the album almost exactly in two, thereby creating a moment of rest akin to an intermission at a classical concert, everything here points to a composer who tends to his inventions as though they were precious plants in a Japanese garden.

In a place of such graceful shapes, mechanical repetition would seem like a primitive tool. There are infrequent moments, such as on „Shape to Shore“ or „Mossbank“, when the music does spin itself into a loop, as though it were caught in its own web of beauty, entranced by the sentiments stirred up through its insistent massaging of a particular emotional nerve. But mostly, the arrow of time is pointed straight towards the distant horizon, never once marking time or looking back. If many commentators have doted on the ephemeral qualities of this music, then that is foremost because, quite literally, it makes elusiveness its Leitmotif: Once a phrase or theme has been released from the imagination into the world, it is gone and will never return again. As if to mirror this train of thought, melodies move at a hazy pace, sometimes giving off the appearance as though their author were reflecting intently on each single note before actually playing it. Monocoastal is really about small spaces, but it sometimes sounds as though someone had taken the score, cut up its different parts with a pair of scissors and then spread them out on the concrete floor of a giant warehouse.

In closing „Monocoastal (Part 2)“, the music hinges on a downward bound lament. The cycle keeps repeating, slightly different each time, constantly teasing the listener by withholding the final chord which would make it complete. Then, at the three and a half minute mark, a bell suddenly sounds the tonic in the bass, stirring ripples of fulfillment, joy and bliss. It is the only time it will appear in the entire track, but it is an event that changes its entire feeling from a sensation of sweet pain into a feeling of profound happiness and hope. It is in moments like these that the artist seems to be talking directly to you – getting closer than this would probably feel uncomfortable.

By Tobias Fischer

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