Short Takes on Recent Releases | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Short Takes on Recent Releases 

Two records from the UK and a little Chinese box with a speaker

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FM3 | The Buddha Machine

In Nam June Paik's 1974 installation TV Buddha, a wooden Buddha contemplates its real-time image on a video monitor--at the crossroads of modern technology and ancient tradition, the piece is both perfectly static and subtly, constantly changing. The Buddha Machine, a solid-state music player credited to the Beijing-based duo FM3, occupies a parallel space. Manufactured by a company that makes similar gizmos to play Buddhist chants, it's basically a little plastic box with a volume knob, a crappy speaker, jacks for headphones and DC input, a tiny red "on" light, and a switch that cycles it through nine instrumental loops. (The machine costs about $25, depending on the exchange rate--try Forced Exposure, Boomkat, or Staalplaat's Web site.) If you don't hit the switch again or turn the machine off, any given loop will repeat forever--or, if you're not using the DC input, until its two AA batteries die. The shortest loop is about as long as the time between skips on a scratched 45 RPM record, the longest a bit under a minute, and they all sound curiously drained and ashen. One is a little cluster of sustained tones that recalls an orchestra beginning to tune up, followed by something similar a minor third lower; another is a pair of skittish piano chords, the second of which decays for a few seconds until the first replaces it again; a third is a fingerpicked pattern (on guitar or possibly Chinese lute) that wobbles endlessly through a maze of four notes.

But the meaning of the Buddha Machine has as much to do with its medium as with its content. The cheapness of its speaker means the loops never play exactly the same way twice--they distort, crackle, and disintegrate midair like a distant AM station on a car radio, or like the waves of noise that overtake the songs as the car passes out of range. And through headphones--for which the lowest volume setting is already blistering--the loops mutate in a new way, spattered with high-frequency ticks that appear and disappear as you tilt or rotate the machine. But no matter how you listen, the ultimate result is the same. Each loop seems to dribble along randomly at first, then arrange itself into a rhythm as you grow accustomed to it and learn to perceive its regularity. Finally it recedes into the wallpaper, as loud as ever but no longer something you consciously hear at all. The box is a prayer device for secular audiophiles, a new way to meditate on the meaning of composition and ambient sound--and on the imperfection and transience of both music and technology. --Douglas Wolk

VASHTI BUNYAN | Lookaftering

Vashti Bunyan recorded her second album, Lookaftering, 35 years after her semilegendary debut, Just Another Diamond Day--but if it weren't for the deeper vibrato in her voice, the new disc could be mistaken for a collection of outtakes from the sessions that produced the first. Both albums are exquisitely gentle, with sparse fingerstyle guitar, gossamer string arrangements, and flourishes of recorder, mandolin, and harp draped carefully over Bunyan's folk songs, which are as quiet and soothing as lullabies.

In the mid-60s Bunyan recorded a Jagger-Richards folk-rock single for Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, but it flopped. Her subsequent recordings weren't even released, and in 1968 she took off to travel the English coast in a horse-drawn cart with her boyfriend. Almost two years later she returned from her sojourn with a batch of tunes she'd written herself and hooked up with folk-rock producer Joe Boyd to make Diamond Day, backed by members of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. The patient, carefully wrought songs romanticized rural life without sounding naive, but when the album was released in 1970 it promptly sank out of sight.

Bunyan hung up her guitar and devoted herself to raising a family, unaware that by the late 90s her album had become a collectors' item. The British label Spinney Records reissued Diamond Day in 2000, and it became an important template for the emerging indie-folk scene. According to the December issue of the Wire, Bunyan used her first royalty check from the reissue to buy a Mac, a mixer, and a keyboard; encouraged by a stream of requests from artists eager to collaborate with her, including Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins and Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, she returned to songwriting in earnest.

Last year Bunyan appeared on an Animal Collective EP called Prospect Hummer, released by Fat Cat, and the label was sufficiently impressed to offer her a deal for an album of her own. Robert Kirby, who contributed string arrangements to Diamond Day, reprises that role for Lookaftering, and the crew of backing musicians includes Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and percussionist Adam Pierce of Mice Parade.

But the disc is very much Bunyan's show: her melodies are as angelic as ever, and her poignant lyrics use down-to-earth metaphors to demonstrate the wisdom of learning to accept the fears and failings that so often frustrate people's attempts at intimacy. If anything, the fragile beauty of the music makes it easier to feel her inner strength. --Peter Margasak

FIRE ENGINES | Codex Teenage Premonition

Edinburgh postpunks the Fire Engines have long been regarded as one of those "seminal influences"--more heard about than actually heard--but the runaway popularity of the genre's current revivalists is giving the band a chance to reach a much larger audience than it did the first time around. Active for less than two years in 1980 and '81, the Fire Engines released just three singles and one eight-song album, Lubricate Your Living Room, and typically played 15-minute live sets--a "leave 'em wanting more" approach that undoubtedly frustrated plenty of potential fans. Front man David Henderson and drummer Russell Burn have since recorded an impressive series of art-pop albums with the Nectarine No. 9, but they've never done anything else that approaches the Fire Engines' sound: Henderson and second guitarist Murray Slade thrashed out a lean and wiry version of Captain Beefheart's jagged guitar interplay over a numb throb of drums and bass.

In 2004 the Fire Engines reunited to open for the Magic Band (minus the Captain), and later that year they accepted an invitation to open for their disciples and champions in Franz Ferdinand. (The two groups also covered each other's tunes on a limited-edition seven-inch.) But rather than capitalize on this exposure by reissuing their out-of-print studio work, late in 2005 the Fire Engines put out Codex Teenage Premonition--live material and early versions of previously released tunes, filled out on the stateside edition by two tracks from a Peel session and the Franz Ferdinand cover, "Jacqueline."

The sound quality on Premonition is subpar, but the charged, frantic performances make the urgent takes on the 80s releases sound almost restrained. Burn and bassist Graham Main pound out spastic grooves that repeat with headache-inducing relentlessness, the trebly, twitchy guitars slash and flail like a pair of eels in the bottom of a rowboat, and Henderson's singing is an indecipherable yelp--just another rhythmic noise in the hyperactive din. The Fire Engines held rock-star conventions in disdain, like many other acts on the early-80s Scottish postpunk scene--Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera--but they also went one step further, doing away with melody entirely. Franz Ferdinand's accomplishment has been to spike stomping, catchy pop with the Fire Engines' manic energy, but once you've heard the uncut stuff on Premonition you won't miss the tunefulness at all. --Peter Margasak

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