Tonight, on one plane of the universe, rock critics battle over whether indie rock has become “our” adult contemporary. Elsewhere, more liberal-minded critics consider whether, just maybe, adult contemporary isn’t such a bad thing, but all nurse faded boomer ideals of heroic rebellion in art. It is another post-internet, perhaps post-critical, plane entirely on which San Franciscan Peter Berend releases a self-titled tape on a new cassette label headed by Joe Knight of Rangers and, after its 101 copies sell out, is reissued on vinyl through Not Not Fun before finding its way back into critical discourse here on TMT. Fortunately, one of the things I love about this site is that the main question readers will want me to answer is not whether it’s cool to make music that doesn’t aspire, above all else, to offend; as Berend’s music shows, it’s not really important whether or not Adult Contemporary is a bad thing, but just that it is a thing: a thing in our memories. A thing in our social and sonic worlds, a thing that is apt to wear out, degrade, and pass its sell-by date, just like any other commodity. On KWJAZ, Berend looks to the high point of adult contemporary for inspiration: the late 1980s, a time when jazz and R&B got all mixed up on the difference between sexy and glossy and smooth and bland. Berend transforms the yuppie IKEA-catalog swankness of the original into a vision of that same furniture in the garbage dump, 25 years later. On KWJAZ, the suede and chrome could have been further degraded and decomposed for my taste, but there is a satisfying layer of grime over everything, giving the minimalist furniture music an altogether more sinister shape than it had when it was a viable lifestyle backdrop.
The album’s cover depicts a psychedelic landscape in which everything — rocks, sky, water — is in bloom. It is a fractal vision in which all existence unfolds like a petal, kaleidoscopic patters revealed in layers. The music contained on the album is also layered, each sound emerging out of and descending back into washes of synth and tape effects. On the first track, spacey, meandering squiggles and a preset flute voice nose their way into the sound field like a baby bird emerging from an egg. The whole scene is rapidly fogged over as whooshes ensue, eventually parting to reveal a soft chorus of muted trumpet and more quietly patient one-finger keyboard soloing. “Righteous Wane” is more ominous in feel, calling to mind early-industrial post-punk experimentation in tape loops and homemade electronics. Everything has a muffled, submarine murkiness and a wavering tape tremor as cardiac thumps give rise to unsure synth squelches and rudimentary drum patterns. Later, a xylophone, toy drum kit, and shambling acoustic guitar conjure up sickeningly sunny library music as played by The Shaggs. In the best sections — on the first side, especially — underneath the layers of hiss and reverb is a tunefulness, a sure phrasing that might come from slowing down the recording of his take; it at least suggests a powerful impulse toward self-effacement in these songs’ partial obliteration.
I’m not sure how much these sounds correspond to my own formative on-hold experiences, but after listening to the album enough times, it becomes an arresting memory of an experience of listening, in its own right. This is an album that really teaches you how to listen to it. It takes multiple listens to hear through the murk or, rather, for your memory to absorb the seemingly uneventful compositions, but once you do, the mind begins to reconstruct the longbox CD recordings on which these songs might have originally made sense, to sense the details of sound that have been smoothed away. It has become a cliché to remark that music of this sort sounds like a memory of itself, but it really wasn’t until I had listened to the album many times when it became a memory I was able to process. It’s partly that KWJAZ’s signifiers are not really part of my sonic unconscious. Quiet-storm jazz and ECM lifestyle music were anathema to my parents, committed AOR listeners, so my memories of these textures don’t lie very deep. Maybe that’s why this album is so hard to either Proust-vibe to or intellectualize. Unlike chillwave purveyors of VHS-dubbed memories of after-school television soundtracks, KWJAZ insinuates itself into my unconscious as a memory I never had, a Freudian transference of Berend’s fantasies and hangups to my own dusty unconscious.
Not Not Fun hails this album as a “mystery mixtape.” The idea of an album as a mixtape is pretty overdone, but this one actually conforms less to the form of the mixtape than to the radio transmission. The songs arise from a shapeless static, and their clarity varies wildly. Some flash into the mix for 20 seconds, others for several minutes. We hear an unconscious that is being broadcast, through distortion, through noise, through decades, multiple signals interfering with one another in some places and amplifying one another in others. KWJAZ’s namesake seems to be Seattle smooth jazz station KWJZ, which earlier this year, shifted overnight from playing smooth jazz to Dave Matthews and Kings of Leon. The “vast majority” of smooth jazz stations are actually defunct, according to the article — victims of the moving target of “adult” in “adult contemporary” (turns out adult contemporary is less a sound than a demographic) — but their transmissions are still traveling though space, inner and outer. The station’s name is now “The New Click,” but it retains its original call letters, KWJZ. KWJAZ would make fine programming for this silenced radio station’s final, endless broadcast, displaced from the radiowaves to the memories of post-internet seekers.