If we’re to believe Jason Lescalleet and Greg Kelley, conversations are an ideal rather than a reality. Every second of their first collaborative album since 2001’s less-than sunny Forlorn Green is fraught with bleak uncertainty and malingering doubt as to the possibility of communication. Rather than evolve or crystallize toward some comfortingly transparent resolution, some illuminating revelation of intent, its enveloping noise-ambience simply drifts and rattles further into the unknown, where the potentially rich meanings of our signs are severed in the pursuit of narrowly practical ends and left to gust forlornly in some black purgatory. Yet the pessimistic vision of trumpeter Kelley and noisemonger Lescalleet falls foul of the obvious counter-argument against postmodernist scoops on the “violence” of language and the unreality of truth, which is that none of us can communicate a denial of communication and verify the nonexistence of truth without contradicting ourselves.
Contradiction or not, there’s something insidiously harrowing about pieces like “Introductions” and “Consultation.” Inching out of a nameless silence, both reveal themselves via thickly sustained breaths of tape hiss and trumpet that peel in and out of each other in glacial bouts of contraction and expansion. Clearly, Lescalleet and Kelley are desperate to say something to themselves or to us, but the compositions’ respiring blankets of aural fog deviate so little from their overpowering gloom that nothing is unequivocally singled out and differentially signified, leaving us in each case with an indistinct mass that could represent everything or nothing for all we’re told by the homogenic instrumentation.
Given titles like “Introductions,” “A Frank Discussion” and “Intercourse,” such unarticulated quagmires could be taken in one or both of two ways. Either they stridently frame the confusing tendency of language to evoke several things at once and nothing with precision, or they represent the inexpressible, the vague sentiments and half-thoughts remaining in people when the sterile formalities of language have extracted only such information from them as can be incorporated into utilitarian processes. “A Frank Discussion” and its juddering dissonance would make a good advertisement for the latter, producing something like the sound of a trawler scraping its hull against a dock, and in turn conjuring a sense of the restive exasperation that meets anyone who repeatedly fails to say just what they mean, who finds their thoughts corrupted by the infidelity of their own words.
The same could be said for “La Conversación,” which from a rising slew of quivering horn and groaning static ends with Kelley whipping his trumpet from one lawless paroxysm to another, the number’s threatening intro spurned for a tantrum that fades resignedly into nothing, and its overall impact only made weightier by the fact that, even though we can intuit the desire of another human being to share something personal with us, all we can hear is an impersonal, senseless cacophony. And if things weren’t defeatist enough, there’s album-landmark “Intercourse,” a 33-minute behemoth that flows through ambient quietism, tinnitus-fancying pitches, slithering feedback, industrial-strength vibrations, faint background ethereality, in-the-red sheets of fuzz, and an unbroken reveille the finality of which appears in complete amnesia of the Babel it succeeds. Despite its unsettling opacity, what endows it (as well as the cuts preceding it) with disconsolate power is its possession of a multi-part structure, qualifying it as a softly nightmarish mirror of more conventional pieces that boast melody, harmony, verses, choruses, and movements. As such, it seems to openly mock and undermine the pretensions of more orthodox music and art to be representing something definite and decisive, to be in possession of a clear message that might take root according to the (presumably coherent) apprehensions of its author.
This skepticism is all well and good, but if such a conception does represent the premise of the discordantly engrossing Conversations, it’s prevented from any considerable measure of success by the listener’s ability to recognize it. Because its critique of language, of signs, and of music is communicable and understandable, it disproves its own argument and fatally hampers its applicability, limiting it to a small subset of semiotic constructions that are notoriously ambiguous, troublesome, or impoverished, and leaving it with little to say about signifying systems as a whole. Nonetheless, the fractious experimentalism that Greg Kelley and Jason Lescalleet exhibit here lives up to expectations for most of the album, even if it might scare off a few innocent bystanders with its relentless persistence and defiant monotony. Then again, if Lescalleet and Kelley are right about the bottomless pervertibility of signs and language, you can just tell yourself that it’s all about bunny rabbits and ice cream.