Your First Ever River, the debut album from Mouthus guitarist/vocalist Brian Sullivan’s United Waters, sure is… quiet?
Let me explain why this is better than it may sound. “Quiet,” in this case, is two-pronged: first and fairly obviously, the whole project is pretty far removed from the cuspily-seminal noise rock of Mouthus; whatever in hell United Waters is, it sure evokes quieter paradigms. But “quiet” is also a misnomer that gets tossed around a lot in the so-called Loudness Wars, of which some readers may have heard. Nick Southall’s several-year-old article “Imperfect Sound Forever” remains the best primer on the topic, but in short: over especially the last 15 years or so, competitive producers have mixed albums at increasingly ‘loud’ levels, which actually means that they’re being compressed into a far narrower dB range. Consequently, turning up the music with an actual volume knob (the absolute power of which renders “quiet” a misnomer) yields a more cluttered, distorted sound — even with records most would agree are produced with finesse, like Cosmogramma. Southall convincingly argues that this trend corresponds with the ubiquity of contemporary music and the restlessness of contemporary listeners; music that only utilizes the top 5% of a CD’s dynamic range is designed for maximal initial impact and eventual background throb, rather than close listening and investment.
What United Waters’ somewhat antiquated mastering means for Your First Ever River as a whole is that, while it doesn’t fare particularly well on shuffle/playlists/mixtapes, it demands to be as dynamically immersive as it is sonically. This clutch is also where it diverges from Sullivan’s scattered and almost coincidentally pretty work as Eskimo King. When, halfway through the 11-minute opener “My Geology” (which begins/began as an EK song), some seismic-ass low-end throttles the song, spilling through pores of a permeability we just don’t hear much these days, no one’s gonna even whisper “Bassnectar” — because well, there’s no beat, no law, no tension/release, but moreover, your ears don’t feel pushed back by any such nauseating certainty; they feel welcomed, if more than a little confused. You don’t know from which direction the blackened-in waveform came. You don’t know where Sullivan’s going with it. It’s not even entirely clear that every listener would agree that the song is no longer “quiet.”
The album is loaded with this kind of otherworldly flotsam — gurgling vocal manipulations, wooly acoustic guitars, fingerdrumming loops, synthy syringes — barely cohering into songs, but how Sullivan manages to make the stuff so warm and inviting despite everything is a little harder to point at. I once tried recording a folky/Sebadoh-ish song with a broken-beyond-repair microphone held together with a paperclip and a rubber band. The result sounded like flat white noise to me, but just for kicks, I decided to run it through Audacity’s “noise removal” filter. What was left was a smattering of barely-there audio fragments sanded off at the edges, remarkable in its own way but frustratingly far from my vision for the song. I dumped the recording (and the mic), which was stupid, but a response I think most musicians would have had when faced with oblivion. Yet United Waters sounds like the cool mastery of this stumbled-upon noise-removal-noise, subtractive occasionally to the point of stomach cramps but so consistently and densely ‘out there’ that, at its best, it feels like a blueprint for an absolutely fresh direction. And if ‘Unique’ weren’t such a bratty empiric, I’d be serious: it’s been a long time (The Glow Pt. 2, maybe, at my croniest) since I’ve heard such a compelling case for obfuscation-as-form-as-horizon in pop music.
And yes, somewhere in there, this is pop music. The context of Mouthus had to be a pretty hellish foundry to develop one’s songwriting skills — and the duo’s excursions into ‘accessible’ territory were often such heaving shrugs as to leave everyone vaguely disappointed — so the biggest surprise of United Waters is that Sullivan comes off not only as a fully-formed texturalist, but also as a fully-formed melodicist. It’s doubly impressive that he’s working with such crudely shaped tools, up to and including his own gutter-scraping baritone. But the tools are a crucial part of the hypnosis he has going here: he’ll build structures out of apparent silence just to create a line for something else to ooze over, like the clammy, pitch-shifting worm that both diagnoses and derails “Statuary.”
Such collisions no longer feel like coincidental, nihilist-in-a-room stuff; for a guy who has had such a stubborn one-take history, Sullivan is now stroking his wiry beard all composer-like. “Platetectonics” demonstrates some amoebic diligence — around some inaudible kernel, he spins a ribby acoustic line, a few flecks of reversed drum machine, and a keyboard attempting to vamp on a hamsterwheel. (I could bleed pointless words about anything else in there, the tempo choices in the tiniest tremolo buzz). And yet somehow “Platetectonics” emerges the closest to a blogger-pick in the whole crop, an elliptical confirmation of the other tracks’ elliptical suggestions and, for better or worse, a tad more familiar a tad sooner. When you can hear them, Sullivan’s lyrics are geometrical, geological, new-agey without the benefit of bath salts — completing circles and the like — but they work best as thematic fenceposts, or promises empty-until-colored.
While song development is gushable across the board (except perhaps for the tumbleweed-kicking “No End to Eyes”), it’s really the sustained dankness of the album, its elastic and inside-out physics, that will draw listeners back time and time again. Melody and sound converge so darn well that it’s a wonder the recordings don’t just tattoo themselves on one’s brain. Instead, calling the album to mind when it’s not playing involves the more deeply embedded neural memory of trying to peer with one’s ears. Even Sullivan’s diehard followers admit that he has spent an awful lot of time basically just fucking around with Principles of Beauty and Sound, so it’s particularly neat that now, after by my estimation his longest release gap since Mouthus’ debut in 2004, he has pulled together a capital-P Project. Whether it’s a momentary confluence, a meticulous culling, or the first in some insular whirlwind of limited releases, Your First Ever River measures up, if on a wildly different axis, with the best of Sullivan’s scraptastic past.