Peanut Butter Knife

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lost Sounds: 1. Gastr del Sol Camoufleur

The first in an occasional series on great albums that may have slipped through the cracks of the modern musical hype machine.

Though GDS principal Jim O'Rourke titled his 1997 album of acoustic guitar instrumentals Bad Timing, perhaps that moniker might have been better applied to Camoufleur, Gastr del Sol's swan song, instead. The core duo of O'Rourke and David Grubbs had already split at the time of it's release, resulting in little press and no touring. Furthermore, the album represented a pretty significant shift in the group's overall sound (if not their approach), alienating fans of their earlier, noise-driven experimental work. Adding to all that, 1998 can be viewed in retrospect was the beginning of the end of the post-rock zeitgeist, leaving Camoufleur an underappreciated gem from one of underground rock's most forward looking eras.

It is hard to believe that this album is now almost 9 years old. At one time, I hyperbolically intoned that it was responsible for me moving to Chicago. Perhaps there were a host of other factors involved in that decision now, but its easy to see why I was so moved at the time. The melding of experimental sounds, international folk music (for lack of a better term), and classic Beach Boys-inspired pop was an eye opening brew that was not only in tune to what else I was listening to at the time, but led me down paths to discover music by artists as disparate as Edith Frost, Van Dyke Parks, Oval, Charles Ives, and John Fahey to name a few, not to mention a host of Indonesian gamelan recordings.

Musically, Camoufleur is an expansive musical soundscape where words wrap around acoustic guitar figures set adrift over a gently pulsing mix of horns, percussion, piano and electronics. "The Black Horse" begins with a fanfare of guitar, fiddle and drums based upon Vietnamese folk music before evolving into a meditative, vaguely Japanese acoustic guitar drone that sounds like a dark, rainy Fall evening. "Mouth Canyon" is O'Rourke's lone vocal contribution to the album, a reflective snapshot washed in a bath of steel guitar, listening to it feels like driving through a run down part of Chicago's west side at sundown on a wintry Sunday evening. Opener "The Seasons Reverse" is GDS' most upbeat moment, a shockwave to those who had come to expect brooding experimental sounds from the band. Acoustic guitar, drums and synths engage in a percolating tug of war that might be reminiscent of popcorn popping before giving way to dueling steel drum and trumpet solos (!) worked in so effortlessly, you'll wonder why more artists aren't using that combination. Edith Frost's vocals on "Each Dream Is An Example" are effervescent and seem to arrive in the song as if from on high. The coda to "Bauchredner" brings the whole album home with a soaring homage to Americana.

I've let this one sit on the shelf for much of the past few years. In part, as my tastes changed I seemed to move away from sounds that hinted of avant-gardism. I also went through a period right after moving back to Ohio where I was staying away from Chicago music. It cut a little too close to the bone for me. Through the magic of the ipod though, I've rediscovered this album over the last month and hearing it fresh once again, I can see why it captivated me so much at 21 when I was on hunt for new, exciting sound combinations; but I'm finding it relevant once again at 29, where the reflective, almost haunting moods are echoing with deeper resonance.

In short, this is an album that I wish more people had heard. Instant recognition and hype, however, is not usually a good thing; though to let this album slip into total obscurity less than a decade later would be the far greater tragedy.

Gastr Del Sol "The Seasons Reverse"

Gastr Del Sol "Mouth Canyon"

Buy here or here.

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