April 2014

Last a Lifetime

The Lambkin / Lescalleet Trilogy
By Matthew Horne

With 2013’s Photographs, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet completed their planned four-disc trilogy for the Erstwhile label by revisiting their birthplaces (Folkestone, Kent, UK and Worcester, MA, respectively). What they found were beacons of the past, faint memories expectantly blurred by the present. And many critics have honed in on this aspect of the double-disc monolith. For Dusted, Bill Meyer writes:

For a moment the noises of present-day life crowd out the past, but then small fragments of that soundscape are isolated and filtered, abstracted like any memory that turns up in anyone’s art. The things you left behind are changed, by time and by memory and by carefully adjusting the tape speed.

Similarly, for Tiny Mix Tapes, Matthew Phillips writes:

[A]ny moment that the tape records is impossible for us to experience, and however warmly Lambkin and Lescalleet invite us into the spaces in which their childhoods, lives, and families have unfolded, we may only approach as far as to listen at the keyhole.

Both critics, as well as several others, structure their praise around the concept of memory, in the cases of both Meyer and Philips, how it is distorted through time and perspective. Although their focus has been on recollection within Photographs, what I find abundantly clear as I retrace The Breadwinner and Air Supply is that Lambkin and Lescalleet’s trilogy has always been about memory. Fundamentally, this entire trilogy is about how we experience sound, in the present, and in the near and distant past. It is about how Graham and Jason experience(d) their surroundings; it is about how the listener experience(d) her setting; it is about how the listener experience(d) Graham and Jason’s surroundings.

To properly address The Breadwinner, Air Supply, and Photographs, it thus seems necessary to consider each album within the context of their prequels and sequels, even cognizant of Graham and Jason’s material not recorded for Erstwhile, both live and on other labels. With this piece, I will then attempt to fit all of the duo’s pieces together — their Erstwhile trilogy, their solo material during this era, and their live performances — doing so with the help of Graham, Jason, Jon Abbey, and many other music critics.

By now, many already know the gist of the story behind Photographs‘ prequels. With 2008’s The Breadwinner, Graham invited Jason (and the listener) into his home as a recording space; 2010’s Air Supply mirrored this process at Jason’s estate. Both were lauded at their time of release for their innovative take on musique concrète, appropriation of the mundane, and overall disquieting atmosphere. Lurking in these reactions was a recognition of similarities across albums, but the absolute continuity spanning the duo’s five years was somewhat lost, partly due to the limitations of the single album review format. It is staggering, as a critic, to take a step back from any of Graham and Jason’s collaborative albums, and attempt to take in what they were up to since the middle of the 2000’s.

Lambkin and Lescalleet aren’t strangers to the sorts of narratives on their Erstwhile albums, both having dabbled in this corner of concrète before. With previous recordings (2007’s Salmon Run and 2010’s Amateur Doubles), Graham Lambkin explored the act of listening to music, a trope that occurs within Photographs (“Quested to Saint Hilda”). And these appropriations weren’t just ordinary found sounds, they were evocative spaces, within which Lambkin interacted — the fragmentation of Salmon Run‘s classical radio, the flood of memories attached to Amateur Doubles‘s road trip prog-rocking.

Lescalleet, going further, integrated memory into his music even more explicitly, with 2006’s The Pilgrim. Inspired by the death of his father, The Pilgrim features Jason’s last conversation with Mr. Lescalleet to form a devastating memorial.

Moreover, Lambkin and Lescalleet synthesized their recorded work into their live performances during this Erstwhile era. Going back to their first live performances together in 2008, Lambkin and Lescalleet tied each show, usually a handful around the release of each album, directly to the material pressed to CD for Erstwhile, both previously released and future sounds. Paraphrasing from Jason Lescalleet, all but their first show (in 2008, at a bookstore in Western Massachusetts) were not improvised, and during each show, the duo used recordings found on one of their Erstwhile releases, sometimes sounds not yet released.

I’m not mentioning their live performances nor their solo material to list historical ephemera, but to provide the massive scope of this endeavor. It is evident that the ideas behind the Erstwhile trilogy permeated most aspects of Graham and Jason’s output during and prior to the production of these four discs. There was a plan, and, as Jason’s mom says on “If All Goes Well” (on the second disc of Photographs), “[S]eems like [it] has worked well, all fallen into place. Shall I serve soup first…It has a little of everything in it.”

The Breadwinner‘s official album release show was on May 24th, 2008 at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, NY. I was not in attendance. Instead, I was celebrating my 21st birthday in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, doing god knows what, listening to god knows what — probably Pavement. I came late to Lambkin and Lescalleet, and this sort of music in general, hearing The Breadwinner in the spring of 2010. I still remember the first time I listened to the album.

I first spun The Breadwinner as I was falling asleep. It was warm enough to leave the windows open at night, but cold enough to require a comforter. My apartment in Carrboro, North Carolina was completely surrounded by pines that would often creak all night long. As the fire-crackling of “Listen, the Snow is Falling” began, I felt simultaneously in Graham’s Poughkeepsie, New York backyard and within a formative memory. I was in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, straddling the Brandywine River. I was in a house that my dad briefly lived in, whose walls and hardwood steps talked in an unfamiliar language. The sounds of NC, NY, and PA were conjoined in that moment, wrapped together through the coils of Jason’s reel-to-reel.

By taking the listener within Graham’s present, private life on The Breadwinner, the listener was able to, among other things, understand and relate to Graham and Jason’s everyday. As they stirred their ice teas, left their front doors ajar, we not only saw Graham and Jason’s memories of the present, but saw our minutiae. In focusing on these spatial elements, Graham and Jason translate the commonplace into the thoughts that were incidentally attached to them. As Lucas Schleicher says in a review of the The Breadwinner for Brainwashed:

And memory seems to be part of what Graham and Jason are up to with these songs. They make the lowly spoon and water glass speak to sensations usually provoked by rock ‘n’ roll songs, familiar melodies, conventional rhythms, and good books.

There is this sense of a distant familiarity, of a story so real that we can’t help but be immersed by Lambkin and Lescalleet. Yet when we focus in on the details, the resolution is just blurred enough to invite the ambiguity of personal experience. In this regard, I can’t help but associate The Breadwinner to the record from which it draws its cover — Robert Ashley’s Private Parts. Each fragment, each sentence of “The Park” is so vivid, yet when we consider the entire piece as a whole, it “fus[es] into a picture so lifelike that it never quite add[s] up,” as Kyle Gann writes.

Ashley’s work never really connected with me until somewhat recently, after having heard all four of Lambkin and Lescalleet Erstwhile discs. Yet when the late composer’s work hit me sometime last fall, his pieces felt like they had been with me for years. Every non-sequitur sentence of “The Park” would linger, somehow attached to a long ago memory that never existed. And I feel the same way about The Breadwinner. In far less words, Lambkin and Lescalleet managed to create something timeless and dually meaningful — for them and for the listener.

In the press release of Air Supply, Jon Abbey writes, “The duo wanted to make a leap away from the territory they’d explored on The Breadwinner.”, and I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Although the central premise of The Breadwinner remained, the world the duo created within this second disc was as far from its predecessor as Maine from New York as the crow flies. We can hear flickers of Lambkin and Lescalleet’s experiences — a conversation, a bird chirping, chimes — but the exchange is significantly hazier. At times, the process mirrors The Breadwinner — we can faintly hear Jason’s reel-to-reel on the title track redux “Because The Night,” similar to the relationship between “There And Back” and “There And Back Again” on The Breadwinner. But by and large, the how of Air Supply is more overcast.

And I’m not alone in this sentiment. Writing for his blog Just Outside, Brian Olewnick remarks:

Once again, I’m confronted with a release I enjoy very much but find very difficult to parse, to explain exactly why I like it. There’s something insidious about it, some underlying itch that’s almost belied by the surface smoothness which … is certainly not hard to listen to cursorily.

Much of the critical reception to this album resembled Brian’s, enchanted yet perplexed by Air Supply, unable to identify. And, because of this void, much of the critical consensus suggested a sort of creeping malevolence hiding within Air Supply.

As such, Air Supply has always been a tricky album. So much of The Breadwinner was recognizable, even transparent at times. Air Supply‘s density not only obfuscates Lambkin and Lescalleet’s methods, but also most points of reference. Whereas The Breadwinner is a memory floating somewhere on the periphery of our recollection, Air Supply is a relic from a previous life.

One of the few distinguishable signifiers is the cover art, drawing inspiration from Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s Air Structures. As Robert Ashley’s Private Parts is to The Breadwinner, it’s not hard to see the influence Fripp & Eno had on this record. Although Air Supply is nowhere near as even-tempered as its reference, it meanders through a similar fog as the Fripp & Eno bootleg.

I asked Jason if Ashley, Fripp, and Eno were inspirations for their first two records, and he informed me that “we were inspired by them before working as a duo and we enjoyed finding this common ground while working together.” With this in mind, it is clear that, like The Breadwinner, Air Supply is a profoundly personal album. Despite my inability to relate to the going-ons within Air Supply, I can still envision Graham and Jason listening to Air Structures and the sounds of Berwick, Maine. Although I do not share their perspective on Air Supply, I can still appreciate the view.

More so than Lambkin and Lescalleet’s previous two albums, Photographs is a dissectible record, which is strange to say about a double-disc behemoth, full of cryptic conversations, jump cuts, and high frequency drones. And while Photographs might be the most sonically adventurous of Lambkin and Lescalleet’s Erstwhile trilogy, discs three and four comprise a relatively inviting world. First and foremost, there is spoken word on Photographs, quite a bit actually. Not to discount the snippet about a VHS tape on Air Supply, the presence of an oral narrative on Photographs goes a long way to distinguish the conclusion of the Erstwhile trilogy from its prequels.

Stitched between disorienting howls and otherworldly samples, we hear conversations about what loss means, Folkestone during tourist season, the durability of a skillet, how Jason’s hometown has changed, and even plum pudding. It is clear that these dialogues are meaningful, despite Graham and Jason’s best attempts at disguising their importance. With all of their fractured imagery, it is easy to get lost within Graham and Jason’s memories, but that is part of the plan.

Loss, or the lack of, is such a central theme throughout all of Photographs. Beyond the literal discussion on “Loss,” we hear hints of spatial confusion throughout the rest of the album. Turn signals speed up and slow down on “Little Glass of Sherry (Little Glass Of Wine),” Jason is cut off while driving on “Street Hassle.” In fact, so much time is spent within and talking about cars, whether Graham has been in his mom’s car before, driving around town, or getting a taxi; this is no surprise coming from the man who recorded an entire album within his Honda Civic (Lambkin’s Amateur Doubles).

We are adrift with Graham and Jason, parsing change and atrophied recollections. Although we are lost, confused, there exists clarity in Photographs. Within these dissipating remembrances we find common ground, shared memories not yet enveloped by time. Bookending each disc, Graham and Jason share the sounds of church (“Quested To Saint Hilda” and ‘Street Cleaner”) and tea (“If Truth Be Told” and “If All Goes Well”) with each other and their families. And their sonic elements clearly play a prominent role — the choir of Saint Hilda, the bells of Jason’s hometown church, the hiss of water boiling for tea. Although much has been forgotten and little remains from their childhood, some sounds last; like a certain cast-iron skillet, they’ll “last a lifetime.”

So much about this project emphasizes the `Lambkin-ness’ or `Lescalleet-ness’ of a given track — the sonic and source differences between The Breadwinner and Air Supply, between discs three and four of Photographs, the allusions to The Breadwinner and Air Supply found within the track titles of Photographs, and that discs 1 and 3, 2 and 4 have identical track lengths. Yet what sticks with me are the similarities, between Graham and Jason, and across time.

From the beginning, Graham and Jason were hinting at the relationships across albums, inserting future material into live shows, and in the designing of The Breadwinner and Air Supply‘s packaging. These easter eggs were hidden to emphasize the payoff of Photographs. Despite wildly dissimilar recording locations, discs one and three, two and four are intimately connected, aurally and in style — the granular imagery of The Breadwinner reemerges in Folkestone, the haze of Air Supply pervades Worcester. The trans-spatial, multi-room recordings of The Breadwinner reappear in and around the Lambkin family’s house in disc three; the oozing drones and tape manipulations of Air Supply interject Lescalleet-clan conversations on disc four.

And, as previously mentioned, in spite of what has changed and the differences between Graham and Jason’s present and past, there is a shared tradition, of church, tea, Ashley, Fripp, and Eno. Time has a habit of stealing so much away from us, but certain memories, and how they sound, can’t be dislodged. What Graham and Jason suggest is that there might be some universality to these resilient thoughts.■

About the Author

Matthew Horne is a doctoral student in Economics at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. In a past life, he wrote about music.