Alex Cobb Marigold and Cable

[Shelter Press; 2014]

Styles: drone, ambient, “pre-predicative” zen minimalism
Others: Taiga Remains, Kyle Bobby Dunn, Stars of the Lid, Marble Sky, Kevin Drumm

Being such a reflexive, self-referring medium, it should come as little surprise that music occasionally stumbles into paradox. Self-contradiction is hard enough for our languages and symbolic systems to avoid at the best of times, and the potential hazards are only multiplied when an album as distinctly universal and metaphysical in its ambience as Marigold and Cable is the product of someone as unavoidably particular and concrete as Alex Cobb. For almost a decade now, the Californian (and founder of the excellent Students of Decay label) has been carving misty tableaux that stretch from drone, to field recordings, to post-rock, and back again in the pursuit of some latent, unexpressed, and indefinable truth; in return, the best his out-there soundings have managed is to transform such truth into something manifest, expressed, and definable. But even though Marigold and Cable arguably extends his tradition of conceptually self-defeating long-players like Ribbons of Dust and Wax Canopy (both recorded as Taiga Remains), and even though it inadvertently reduces the ineffable and ubiquitous into the sign of a specific, partial existence, it’s a no less magnetic listen.

Talk of paradox and self-contradiction seems appropriate with the album, simply because a sustained flex of strings like “Famosa” is the kind of aural blanket that evokes the individual’s submergence within a homogenized mass. And yet its serene unity hovers in bold contrast with the singled-out, distinguished status it confers on the musician whose name is behind it or with the status of any musician likely to birth music of its ilk. Its respiring constancy and harmonious expansiveness hint at a pacifying loss of self in an anonymous sea, and yet by releasing it into the world, Cobb has only pulled himself out of that sea by a few more inches, once again abandoning tranquility and assurance for the life of scrutiny and uncertainty that comes with being a recording artist in the public eye.

Why anyone would want to drown themselves in the liquid peace and exalted let-ring of “Famosa” is anyone’s guess, but it’s fun to speculate that a lack of self-confidence, a lack of self-worth, or even personal guilt could all conspire to drive someone toward its painless annihilation and impersonal relief, or toward the evaporated, slo-mo comings and goings of “Rain at the Fete.” With the latter, shadows of chords with ill-defined borders coalesce and disperse at the universe’s leisure, washing away one’s sense of failure or fault just when the very fact of putting them to vinyl implies enough self-assurance to believe that your ideas are worth sharing with the rest of the world, that you are worth the attention. Its preternaturally echo’d guitar droplets and unhurried crests of delay appear to smother the lone individual’s besmirched identity and forgettable reputation, even as it proves that without this supposedly flawed and miniscule individual, its quasi-intangible majesty wouldn’t have ever existed. As a result, the individual’s prominence is raised at the very moment it’s lowered.

This perverse hand-wringing might all be besides the point of Marigold and Cable’s unostentatious bliss, yet what’s interesting to observe is that almost every facet of its discreet euphoria and ego-stripped calm stands in conflict with some facet of the actual institutions, conventions, processes, and circumstances bound up with its making. Of course, the same could be said about pretty much all drone and ambient music, but with Alex Cobb, it’s possible to identify an explicit intention on his part to create music that rises above the objects, concepts, trivialities, and obligations of the everyday. In an interview published earlier this year, he expressed the Phenomenology-influenced goal of creating music that unfurls “pre-predicatively,” free from readymade labels and linguistic thought, which in part explains virgin drifts of koto-shimmering like “Oversong.” Yet despite the use of an unfamiliar Japanese stringed instrument and the open-ended slivers it teases into a benign drizzle, the aim of engineering a state of being shorn of words, significations, and — by extension — practical consequences is undermined by the fact that its “transcendent” beatitude will inevitably serve as an indicator of all the names attached to it by force of cultural and commercial traditions. In other words, its placid elevation will come to refer back down to its maker, its genre, the ‘zines that review it, the label that put it out, the vendors through which it will be sold, and all those who consume it in order to position themselves within a cultural field.

And this game of compare-Marigold and Cable-against-its-own-context could continue almost indefinitely, with the slow, throbbing development and metallic hum of “Marine Layer” suspended in complete disregard of the tempo at which its surrounding musical scene evolves, as well as the rate at which labels such as Cobb’s own Students of Decay proliferate and issue works in the noise, drone and ambient spheres. Similarly, its highminded calmness, the unshakeable lassitude with which it sails through peaks and troughs of warm feedback, presents an image of pacificism that’s halfway confounded by how the performance and propagation of music is at least an assertive — if not symbolically violent — act, insofar as it equals the colonization of our consciousnesses by the fruits of another person’s imagination. Therefore, even if “Marine Layer” first plays out as a non-threatening landscape of fissiparous guitar clouds that stretch themselves from one floating transition to the next, it may very well implant seeds that grow to affect the trajectory of our feelings, our thoughts, our actions, and therefore our lives.

Yet these secondary concerns don’t subtract from Marigold and Cable’s mysterious beauty, from a beauty that’s only very narrowly dampened by its association with the less than mysterious. However, one cross against the LP’s name is that its impact is blunted slightly by the lack of any dramatic stylistic advance over Cobb’s previous records. Its overall tone may have shifted, swapping the insidious nocturnes of 2012’s Passage to Morning with a more pastoral or benevolent atmosphere, yet its similar approach to structure, texture, and pacing may leave those who aren’t diehard admirers wondering what they have to gain from spending another 30+ minutes in the nimbus of Cobb’s recorded presence. On my part, all I can say is that these 30+ minutes do a very good job of hiding the conditions and consequences of their production, of exploiting washed-out ambience to make such particulars seem insubstantial and insignificant, and it’s surely this obfuscation as much as anything else that (for better and for worse) marks it as a successful work of art.

Links: Shelter Press

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