February 2013

Through Limbo on Cruise Control

Graham Lambkin’s Amateur Doubles
By Lutz Eitel

I’m not the person to write about this album. I don’t even have a driver’s license.

That shouldn’t of course be necessary to understand a piece of music, even if it purportedly was recorded in a driving car. “Recorded 2010–2011 in a Honda Civic,” the curt liner notes specify, which actually might describe a variety of possible production processes. Yet here is how Matthew Horne wraps up the effect of the record on him in a review on Tiny Mix Tapes: “Throughout Amateur Doubles, we feel like a passenger along for Lambkin’s ride. But for me, specifically, listening to the album brings back memories of several great, formative trips.” The car premise is central to most of the handful of reviewers of the LP on record, who might enjoy the concept though not the music (Richard Pinnell on his blog The Watchful Ear), or judge the conceit to collapse on itself (Nick Cain in the Wire). It must be mentioned that all critics to some extent doubt the veracity of the car conceit, only to still proceed from it, so let’s follow the reception history and do that, too.

Obviously the artist is inviting such reactions. The press blurb for the record is a little more elaborate on the process, and since Lambkin himself is behind the label Kye, it can be read as a declaration of intent: “Two-part improvisation recorded in a Honda Civic. Dangerous, tedious, pointless, and timeless, Amateur Doubles is a perfect snapshot of life on the open road.”

Like I said, I know next to nothing about life on the open road. (I live by a busy street, though, that must count for something.) Cluelessness is a possible first step toward objectivity… and in that spirit, let me first objectify things, make clear the relations between my amateur perspective, the LP under discussion, and the reader who might be unfamiliar with the sounds discussed: here is an aural image of how I listen to Amateur Doubles. (All sounds recorded from my desk. I swear. Haphazard, pointless, and lacking ultimate inspiration, it’s a perfect snapshot of my brain at work. Two-part improvisation using the first side of the record at play as a score.)

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(By meaningful accident the car horns are actually from a host of trucks on a drive-in down the street in front of my window, demanding looser regulations for trailer parks, since it’s kind of forbidden here in Germany to live in a car.)

Framed by short collage segments of seemingly casual recordings from a supposed everyday, the main body of Amateur Doubles consists of chunks of two French prog albums field-recorded in a noisy space: the double album Pôle from 1975 by Philippe Besombes and Jean-Louis Rizet, and 3000 Miles Away from 1977 by Philippe Grancher (which has Rizet on synthesizer, was recorded by Besombes, and issued on Pôle records, so both sources come from the same musical scene. Checking the credits on jpegs of the sleeves, I note that the Besombes-Rizet on the back has a very nice shot of the duo motoring down a dusky highway, seen full frontal speeding toward the camera eye. And the Grancher on the cover has an endless keyboard stretched out as a country road meandering through the undulating hills, which is a fine visualization of his style. It seems listeners to the original LPs were already encouraged to imagine this music as something conceived within a car.)

In Lambkin’s rerecording, the original material is encroached upon by various drones like fuzzed-out motors and fluttery background noises that may indeed be sonic detritus from a road trip, though all sounds are indistinct enough so that except for the first half of the second side they do not necessarily suggest the ambience of a car. There are additional sounds like church bells and airplanes that might enter through half-opened car windows, there are kids’ voices which might come from the backseat. Still the way these sound events sit in the stereo spectrum rather independently of the noise backdrop speaks of a collage of elements more than a coherent aural space.

Over whole stretches, the source music is left standing, the treatments aren’t sufficient to deeply change its character. Compared against the original recordings, it’s more like the same person in a slightly different mood. This is where the “tedious” and “pointless” of the blurb might come in: if you have no real stomach for any kind of prog (or kraut) rock, then this might be a challenging listen. Pinnell in his review is audibly unenamored with “the core of the content here, a recording of a really bad seventies prog rock album, full of ambient synth keyboard warbling and ridiculously clichéd flute. This then is what we hear for the length of side one, apart from one or two cuts away, different sections of this bad piece of music played through the car’s stereo as the family drive about, with voices, often Lambkin’s son, here and there heard, indecipherably above the music.” (The picture of the family he paints is taken from the photograph on the inside cover, which shows Lambkin on the passenger seat with his wife at the wheel and a kid in the back, the artist staring discontentedly through sunglasses in the direction of the CD player. The two appropriated CDs are lying conspicuously and not quite believably on the dashboard in front of him.)

Cluelessness is the first step toward objectivity.

And yet listening to the music via the rerecording is a completely different affair to the original. Obviously because of the conceit one can listen to the whole thing in quote marks and sidestep all taste judgments that way. Also, the music does not follow the structure of the original, it ignores the authors’ intentions complete with their climaxes and mood swings and such. Lambkin’s version doesn’t build much, he keeps to a middle ground without big dramatic developments (though of course a middle ground will gain considerable detail during repeated listenings).

In fact the music plays more like a potentially endless interlude, and though in Lambkin the side noises move to the foreground sometimes, they do not overwhelm the proceedings with saturated walls of interesting frequencies, they just take over the wheel for a little while and then succumb to the melody again. The texture, while not rich, is curiously unstable. There is no clear outline of the set-up, no distinct sense of space, no motor up front against wind through the lowered window, just very present hums moving and shaking about, slight distortion, stereo wobble, intruding voices and half-hearted distractions kicked around the stereo field. Everything moves in the middle of the frequency spectrum, with the lower middles a little boomy in a hollow way (or is that my rig?) and what treble noises and clicks there are I often can’t tell from a scratchy groove or static in the clear vinyl. The unbalanced sound is almost restless in perpetual but slight change, every noise source having a mind of its own, and sometimes in midphrase, and without skipping a beat, the character of the background changes like the shadow of a jump-cut switching sceneries, while the foreground music stays in listening continuity. It’s all tightly held together through the same lo-fi perspective of a chance microphone left running. And of course the French prog.

One can listen in quote marks and sidestep all taste judgments that way.

Why do I enjoy that so much? Thinking about this, suddenly I am reminded of a trip myself that I made almost 30 years ago on the back seat of one of those American-built sedans with ample leg space (don’t ask the brand), back when I spent a month in Idaho on an exchange program at my school. We went over straight empty roads through Montana toward the Grand Canyon on cruise control. I seem to remember my guest father had the Beatles on, and from our discussion he overheard me hating on them, so he said: “I hear you’re into jazz? I have something for you,” holding up a Chuck Mangione tape. He put it in the player. We felt we couldn’t talk anymore and had to listen to that Chuck Mangione tape (and I had to pretend to like it), and the astonishing thing was that the car was calm enough – the motor seemed far away, the windows were closed because of the air conditioning – that you could actually listen to the music. Had to listen to the music. Or listen to how well you could listen to the music. Let me reconstruct the moment for you:

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I started talking about how I’d never been in such a great car for music before, and my guest father said that while German cars maybe were more cramped and noisier, they were much safer for kids in the back seat. So I didn’t have to offer sounds of approval anymore. Though meanwhile I had started liking the music because it went with the drive.

(The choice of a car might be like the choice of an instrument? What would the sound of a Honda Civic be, what references would it carry? I do a quick search and come up with a promotion tour by Linkin Park and a video ad where a choir pretends to live-soundtrack a cinematic Honda Civic driving experience complete with howling motor, screeching wheels, windshield wipers flapping in the pattering rain, and generic beats on the car stereo, supposedly all mouthed by the choir like vintage foley… dripping with echo and other effects, though… and I quickly drop the enquiry.)

The choice of a car might be like the choice of an instrument.

The distance of the remove listening to the sound of Mangione unfold in a car, unnaturally free of distraction, does seems related to Amateur Doubles and how the French prog sits in the center of it and makes me ask myself how the original sounds, now that I listen to them as taking place within something other (the car, the LP itself), might change their meaning. The main difference between experiences (except degrees of shittiness in the source music) is the lack of an editorial authority during my own road trip, while Lambkin’s choices of material from the records is purposeful and instructive. (If indeed he makes these choices. In an interview on the WFMU blog Lambkin relates that events were “born through arbitrary happenstance. I record a lot of everyday situations that promise no obvious musical worth, but sometimes a piece of music will enter the picture quite by chance, be captured on tape and set a ball rolling.”) As befits prog rock records, both have a huge variety of mood (though the Grancher is limited in instrumentation), and quality changes from the gruesome to stuff one could safely loop and create music of the future from. Lambkin avoids both these extremes and picks rather atmospheric passages that contain a lot of genre trappings (remember the synth warblings and ridiculously clichéd flute) and, contrary to the original eclecticism, stay within the same manner, that way gaining some metaphorical potential as a picture of the sound of their times.

Pôle by Besombes-Rizet sits somewhere between the lush side of Kraut and the Canterbury scene. I haven’t a lot of reference points for this kind of music, but Popol Vuh’s jarring-in-its-lushness soundtrack to Aguirre came to mind somewhere (I look it up and it’s the same year, ha!). They build nice dramatic arcs when they allow themselves the time, but mostly they get restless far before we can get into trance, and they’re not above a jokey garage song. There are bits and pieces that make me think they would fit Berlin bedroom pop ca. 2000, and a carelessness that is as refreshing as it can be aggravating. There’s also no perceivable soul, instead Bowie sax and heavily premeditated losing of control in Zappa-style freak-outs. Lambkin for his A side plays into track two, “Evelyse,” cuts that out before it starts building too much, and after some paraphernalia drops in on track three (of the CD reissue. I sort of realize you can’t play LPs in your car anymore, but does it maybe slightly bother me I’m aware of listening to a digital translation of the source, however downgraded by analog means the sound is that finally reaches my ears?)

The original Evelyse stands on its own rather well, starting out droney (which goes great with the engine hum considerably darkening the edges in Lambkin’s treatment), and I don’t mind the flute at all. “Armature Double” is tougher on the ear from Besombes-Rizet directly, since the flatness of the synths requires that listeners bring their own atmosphere. (I am aware that these synths probably influenced a lot of pre-sets on the Korgs I grew up with a decade later, but damn they sound so much like presets themselves.) Decisive editing action is required at the six minute mark, where the original offers an overdramatic motif of real-life vs. synthetic hammering percussion, then a quick ride over the swamps near Miami in a helicopter, and finally one of those unfortunate staged freak-outs. These are scrambled, drowned out, down-tuned by Lambkin into a tasteful contradictory noise, until a carefully timed truck horn returns us to the previous mood. Lambkin finally cuts out before the most interesting part of the original piece, which has filtered synth percussion slightly out of synch shot through by ricocheting scratch noises. That would have broken the mood, a mood Besombes-Rizet felt needed breaking, while Lambkin stays with the preludic/interludic parts, flattening the impact of the music. (I would by the way not recommend listening to the original in comparison, because afterward you tend to hear Lambkin’s record as a series of very limiting editorial choices. This does not enhance listening pleasure, I found.)

Quickly he can’t bear the monotony anymore and tries to mold the naive chord loop into heroic gestures with much criminal ornament. 3000 Miles Away by Philippe Grancher, the title track of which Lambkin uses for his B side, is a harder to tolerate but at the same time more interesting record. It’s one keyboardist and his recording studio, him switching between synths and piano, often just hesitantly repeating four-chord sequences over and over. Quickly he can’t bear the monotony anymore and tries to mold the naive chord loop into heroic gestures with much criminal ornament. On piano he favors endless arpeggi and romantic embellishments (I heard quotes from Mike Garson’s playing on Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” and toward the close, strangely, a salon version of Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat” before the fact). Lambkin picks only the synth stuff, first choosing a passage where overdubbed arpeggi demonstrate a heavy horror vacui plastering over the lack of harmonic ideas, then Lambkin loops the most minimal of the four-chord sequences, sprinkled over with nice electronic twitterings, which serves him as accompaniment to environmental or more undecipherable noises he keeps blending in. Again, the distortion and granulation of his treatment deepen the atmosphere, and still they do not completely cover the flatness of the generic sounds in the original. Transitory passages from a highly episodic work have been robbed of an aim, and they become curiously undecided, a relatively featureless (if frilly) state which is vulnerable to the murk closing in.

Think of the record as picaresque music with the incidents cut out.

Even if you’re not a fan, there is some visceral pleasure in the source music. The exact shades of mood buried in these flawed records you can get nowhere else, and they just needed a little curating and degradation of sound to be accessible for those without the nerve to get into the whole thing nerdily just to salvage a few fleeting prize moments. In the case of 3000 Miles Away at least, something also gets lost in Lambkin’s process: Grancher the lone studio auteur without much chops and without any greatly original vision who still attempts to make opera-size music just through the grandness of the gesture. (As a sometime bedroom recorder, I find that inspiring. His sound is so direct you’d need nothing but a Casio and a delay pedal to achieve that yourself. Interestingly, Grancher overdubs little laughing voices to his keyboard deliberations in a track Lambkin didn’t use, and it does have the same sense of a privacy the listener is at a loss to make sense of that you might get from Lambkin.)

The appropriated music is no longer prog, since it doesn’t move. It is now unfiltered by large ambitions and the original context… Lambkin’s intention doesn’t seem to be making music about the older music. If it weren’t for that, probably Amateur Doubles would roughly fit within some of the recent pop discourse. Looping four-chord sequences from a Casio might seem vaguely retromanic. Making degraded old music return through a screen of audible present day activity might seem vaguely hauntological. Taking a piece of tradition to build your own culture on would parallel the hip hop sampling ethos. An art-critical approach might also be promising here: we’re offered an adapted readymade in the common misuse of the word, a found piece (of music) from the real world transferred into an art context, where it can freely live out connotations that in its original place were overlayered by the way it seemed to make sense there. But, while the music now is no longer itself, since it seems that actually more references get lost than gained in the process, it becomes in effect more like music again. As opposed to art. I guess it’s tempting to see the premise of the record as a conceptual conceit, but what would be the concept over and above the story that this music was recorded in a car?

My own first idea when I started writing was to think of the record as picaresque music with the incidents cut out, and to compare it against something like Peter Brötzmann’s Schwarzwaldfahrt, which would be picaresque music with the travel parts cut out. I still like the idea, both in what it suggests about the contexts these records come from—today’s environmentally open form of improvised music (well, the blurb said it was an improvisation) vs. action-packed European free improv—and also because of a shared sense of humor in the face of futility that underlies the ventures of the picaresque hero (most classically, Don Quixote). What I’d still like to retain from that train of thought is that the car conceit is less something conceptual, which would require the record to function as sound art, but rather a narrative conceit—and that brings us to the framing devices bookending both chunks of prog on either side of the LP.

We feel somewhat lifted, then an airplane comes in as a metaphor of that.

Side A starts with somebody trying to tune a flute after the sound of a man gurgling, or is the gurgle trying to follow the flute? Anyway it’s like a family scene in the closeness of the two voices, and then the flute goes into a folkish mode to signify a sense of rootedness. After a cut we’re suddenly in what might be the far end of a turbine hall, then a short snippet of an angry (not necessarily at each other) conversation between man and woman. “Fuck!” he says, and obviously the stress level in this new environment is high. Slowly Besombes-Rizet come in over the noise, and their flute meandering connects to the domestic flute-practicing before. Which makes the French prog stand for humanity/family, undermined by faceless sonic detritus sending unease into the soundscape and threatening to drown out all memory of home life (which it never does). If we read Lambkin’s record as following film soundtrack conventions, the few decipherable noises and disembodied voices during the drive sequences would not seem to originate from real life persons on the backseat, but fade in and out independently, like memories blended into the sounds in the car, as if the driver were replaying chunks of his life in his head. Especially when the background noise is amped up to a more threatening level and a bell tolling (undirected ominousness) firmly keeps its space in the audio spectrum instead of falling behind.

The music is suddenly cut off, which in a real car would mean dissatisfaction with the CD that plays. Then it starts again, merely the next piece of the same record, and over that and the noises there enters a devilish pitched-down voice—we’re not in hell, though, rather in limbo, a formless noise pushing into formless surroundings, while over it all Besombes-Rizet are patiently following a formless melody which patiently follows the chords.

At the end of the LP side: the same booming noise we heard before, and the same tolling bell, then distinctly the idling motor of a car, down-tuned and overdriven, constituting the first clear acoustic proof of the car conceit. And there’s a feeling we’ve returned to exactly the place we began the trip.

The flip starts with somebody hissing spittle into the mic, as if testing it. It seems to work, because the recorded surroundings are somewhat clearer throughout the B side. A distinct flutter changes the booming noise into something shaped like wind through an opened window. Then the ignition goes out, we hear a woman ask, “We’re getting out?” “Yeah,” a man says—the artist himself is at the wheel, we deduce—then the ignition starts again and voices mix with the mad arpeggi of Grancher, angry voices that prove that the stress of this arpeggiated situation tears into the complete family even more than the turbine hall before. The noise takes over for a time, and out of that develops a four-chord cycle that through mere repetition always seems to climb and yet stay on the same level, like Escher stairs of harmony. So we feel somewhat lifted, then an airplane comes in as a metaphor of that, and then we cut from the car to a drunk person trying to emulate Antony’s (of the Johnsons) angelic warble on a Tin Pan Alley song for two lines. A nice loop of basses (the threatening boom of background noise separating out into musical form), some female vocalese on “aah,” a door goes. After that, hiss and static. This time, by the end of the LP side, it seems we have arrived elsewhere. Don’t ask me where, but we went through limbo on cruise control to an unfamiliar place.

And that is the structural beauty of the record for me: Lambkin takes a transitional music and places it in a transitional situation, and then offers us one side where nothing in the end has happened (life on the road as a commuter everyday), and one side as a maybe mildly formative trip toward some place where a greater variety of moods is allowed.

It’s ok, since, as we’ve seen, the artist is the driver.

Of course what I see as the core of the record, the undecided limbo that is the drive through undecided music, might not materialize that way if you’re a huge Pôle fan, or if you have a high-end stereo rig to make the unstable sound field into a wall of noise fascinating in itself. On my set-up, the quality of the music is in its rare imbalance. Most usually the space or setting of a recording would, as soon as they become properly identifiable, take on properties of an aural object. By this I mean nothing fancy, just the way e.g. recorded wind noise will seem to condense into an acoustic form—personally I always identify that with an image of gray fluffy windbreakers (a synesthetic paradox?). It can also work the other way around: in our summer vacation we had a very narrow shower built into a wall recess, and somehow the patter of the water in that tiled-in space sounded exactly like the digital scramble of a highly compressed noise floor I’ve heard mostly in youtube videos, small gray digital particles flitting about. Try as I might, I could not hear that sound as something produced by natural causes within the same space as me as a direct result of my showering.)

I mention this because during that vacation I carried an mp3 folder of Amateur Doubles I had taken from the internet so I could listen on the train, and the compression of these files changed the story for me completely. Every sound became more definably located, so there was a distinct aural space in which to listen. The noises took on in volume and became like distinct players themselves. The clicks hardened into somebody opening and closing cassette players, or whatever they did, and suddenly what dominated was the thought of listening to the artist at work, which kept me from getting into the narrative conceit (though it’s ok, since, as we’ve seen, the artist is the driver). Also the noise became much more threatening, it is a much darker record on those mp3s, which offers a much darker reading of life in a car as not so much limbo but already an outer circle of hell, offering unsustainable stress levels and being victimized by machinery.

I’m not an audiophile, so the degree to which the reading of this record changes with the carrier medium somewhat annoys me. Also, this is the best chance I’ll ever get ever for such a reading, with known source materials, a narrative purpose on offer, and a clear and simple structural framework. As improvisations go, these are some of the most figurative sounds imaginable. Maybe if I knew anything about life on the road I’d have the experience to objectively measure the sounds against the real-life experience and come up with hard and fast deductions about the artist’s intentions. I really should give you, dear patient reader, something to take away and chew on. So, of the two versions on offer, I prefer vinyl.■

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Here’s an unadulterated official excerpt of the LP on Youtube. You’ll probably also find clips of the complete record near, which I guess you might click to check my story, since the record is out of print, but obviously they’re to lo-fi to appreciate the bad sound, so they have no meaning. The official blurb can be read in full at Penultimate Press, the quoted interview with Lambkin is on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog.

Reviews, in order of appearance, by Matthew Horne, Richard Pinnell, and Nick Cain in the Wire, February 2012, and since I can’t link to that, here’s the conclusion: “As [Lambkin’s] embellishments become more apparent, it also becomes clear that the album is really not much more than a mischievously obtuse remix, and as such essentially a curio. Near the end of the second side the conceit collapses when the recording cuts out altogether, to be replaced by vinyl crackle, tape mulch, and muffled female vocals.” You might also want to read Brian Olewnick’s review, which I couldn’t use since he likes the record very much. Finally, if you want to really challenge yourself, watch the fake choir ad for Honda Civic. Would it be conceptual if it didn’t sell cars?

About the Author

Lutz Eitel writes about art (and sometimes music) at To Not Fall Asleep and cuts up old movies and other sounds as spurdertoene.