Mike Cooper Raft

[Room40; 2017]

Styles: steel guitar, nautical, “Ambient Exotica”
Others: Ariel Kalma, Jim O’Rourke, Fennesz

“Making music is a way of getting through life; a pleasurable way.”
– Mike Cooper

As the planks of a vessel carrying you, some things and people don’t seem to go anywhere when you do — or at least don’t seem like they will. You start to think of yourself, maybe even your body, as including the inertial buildup around you, and it becomes a physical fact of some order. It’s the shore that looks like it moves and the ship that “preserves always the same situation,” as Descartes put it in his Principles of Philosophy. Admittedly, we didn’t know much about Mike Cooper before Paradise of Bachelors began to reissue his early-70s folk-rock records in 2014, but his voyage has proceeded on crafts familiar and strange, its course regular in its irregularity, for nearly half a century. Although he dispatches most of the captain’s log to his own Hipshot label, Raft becomes the fourth in a series of saltwater-soaked releases for Lawrence English’s Room40, following 2008’s Oceanic Feeling-Like with Chris Abrahams, 2013’s White Shadows in the South Seas, and 2015’s Fratello Mare. Particularly of kin with the latter, Raft joins what the Room40 press blurb at the time called Cooper’s “continuing ode to the Pacific” and what he himself calls his “Ambient Exotica series.” In a changing and frustrating world where everything solid seems to fall into aqueous mixture, Mike Cooper is still afloat, his guitar tied tightly to his lap with patch cords, so talented as always at finding another raft.

Described in his vocational faculty as a “solo traveler” and mixing field recordings of his real-life Pacific voyages with things like Casio gamelan samples, Cooper is playful with notions of space and authentic experience. Even though it’s technically the fruit of the multigenerational cultivation of those same few flowers — creative touchstones from which the critical accusation of thoughtless, flat exoticism is never far — Raft sounds contemporary in many ways, at once charting a new course and telling a complete, searching story about its creator. Although the tracks are numbered in a seemingly random order of digits between 21 and 47, suggesting a course without simple contiguity, there’s a fairly linear movement throughout their sequence whereby the gentle, bending guitar noodling that dances with a jumping mono electronic signal atop “Raft 21 - Guayaquil to Tully” and spins psychedelically about itself on “Raft 37 - Las Balsas” gives way to the chirping clamor stirring Rafts “29 - Honey Hunters” and “36 - Age Unlimited.” The latter track, an anxious churning of moss and metal and a high point in both sound design and emotional intensity, ends up floating toward an uneasy resolution in “Raft 27 - Guayaquil to Ballina,” some little alcove where Cooper’s guitar is better heard over the birds and bugs. A drum machine is stowed away on “Raft 28 - Vital Alsar,” its stuttering pseudo-breakbeat an erratic but welcome pairing with those lazily bending strings. Rafts may seem conceptually like a retrospective or statement of purpose, and it holds up nicely as a portrait, but it should also be considered a refinement, wading further away from readymade images of the tropics and into the depth of the traveler’s imagination.

The official Mike Cooper website, dated but lovely all the same, leads with Lawrence English’s designation of Cooper as the “icon of post-everything music.” But what could that possibly mean? It’s true that, desperate for words, critics have called Cooper’s work “post-rock,” “post-folk,” “post-ambient,” “post-exotica,” and some other badly descriptive phrases with “post” in them. It’s a forgivable nominal slippage, though, because if you’re standing on the shore, his current location is always already a past one. No words are really better than others for describing whatever it is Cooper is after at all the world’s beaches, tiki bars, and niche DIY clubs, except the ones that emerge on the scene, rubbing their eyes from slumber, just in time to catch a glimpse of his raft disappearing on the horizon. More than just a tidy metaphor for what he’s already been doing, Raft shows the exceptional flexibility with which an artist of Cooper’s endurance has learned to approach the new. It’s an island oasis erected for those who can escape the stir of the increasingly liquefied world for long enough to listen.

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