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Thursday, October 14, 2021

REVIEW: ‘Pansousiance’ – Rob Sinclair and Bevan Revell (Rattle Records)

For the music community the hardest thing about last year’s pandemic had to be the enforcement of performance shut down.  Due to social distancing and restricted congregation rules many creatives were forced into their home studios and practice spaces to reinvent themselves as bloggers and podcasters – or they tried out digital colabs across the internet, or , as in the case of Fat Freddy’s Drop, performed in empty concert halls to record the event for home audiences. It was either that or wither away. 

Plenty found ways to respond, to express their feelings and experiences of the lockdowns.  And this is exactly what we have here.  Just released on Steve Garden’s fabulously independent Rattle Records, ‘Pansousiance’ is a collection of awkward, insecure, unpredictable and challenging modern blues classics that speak to the new normal.  It’s an album of introspective tones and instrumentals (all recorded during the first New Zealand lockdown in 2020) evoking all the imagery that is now familiar in our post-pandemic world, particularly the many challenges artists face as they are forced to negotiate our increasingly uncertain world.

Created by multi-instrumentalists Rob Sinclair (Schtung, Big Sideways, 3 Voices) and Bevan Revell (who was recently working as a session musician in Europe) they have intentionally constructed a number of pieces that feel familiar and disorientating all at the same time.   It has been said that Sonic Youth are capable of writing sweet, commercially comfortable pop songs but they choose to ruin them intentionally in the name of art.  Well, this is what happens here, too.  

The album’s cover is a clue.  Sinclair’s photo of a startled horse in full flee-flight.  A nod to last century’s flu epidemic, when horse and cart was still prominent on the streets, bodies taken away on their backs or in the drays they solemnly pulled through the streets.  Or is it a reference to freedom, speed, power? The photo is blurred, creating an unsettling, out of focus picture of an indeterminate event.  A lack of clarity creates insecurity.  Inside the CD version, there are more blurred images – several taken ‘somewhere in Asia’ – possibly China (a reference to Wuhan, perhaps); a dove in a cage (peace or avian flu?); shaving in a mirror, with a mask close to hand.  These are from trips Sinclair has made, perhaps in better times, observations of a culture that we all are now quick to judge.  

The music is created with all the standard stuff, guitars, drums, piano, an Indian shenai and a bass clarinet (provided by Chrs Watt), but it’s the addition of extra ‘tools’ like pot lids and various handmade instruments that gives an unsettling flavour.  Add to that vocals that are layered in an off-kilter fashion, odd percussion timings and bizarre noodling guitars that remind you of a drunken JJ Cale this is a disturbing listen.  Sonically, this is like Tom Waits, Budgie from the Banshees, NZSO percussionist, the late, great Gary Brain and Blixa Bargeld all got drunk together, had an argument and then had make up sex – all in the same night.  It’s a disturbing listen, for sure!

‘Pansousiance’ is possibly a made-up word.  My dictionary came back with a ‘does not compute!’.  But then everything about this Pandemic is new and odd, so there you are.  The best we can offer is that the word is some form of neologism, a reference to indifference or nonchalance.  A reaction in the face of adversity, perhaps?  A shrug of the shoulders, a new normal is here – get used to it.

Slurry speak on the album’s opening track, ‘From Whence She Came?’, reminds me of the endless parade of experts who speculatively droned on about Covid’s potential impacts in the early days of the event.  These early alarmist headlines appear a misquotes from an inebriated barfly, grasping to find blame: “Lax procedure in a P4 lab, Wuhan university”, “South China live food market/ cages stacked ten by ten high” “He cleared his nose/From where she came/The one who sneezed”.  Shudder indeed!  The opening scenes of the movie ’12 Monkeys’.  

The slow, sludgy and often eerie ‘Lockdown’ features some creepy multi-tracked vocals.  They play slightly out of synch, with an addition of a guest singer Louise McDonald. “Put a mask on, go outside/ Don’t breath too heavy / keep your distance now / and don’t go too far”.   There is a disturbing observation.  I think back to watching America in the Trump era denying what he called ‘China flu’.  This lone voice can’t believe was they are seeing: “Trumpets blowing in the U.S.A / Who’s blaming who? Big apples falling down / Got the Wuhan flu?” There’s no escaping: “The fever’s getting high / And I / I’m in Lockdown/ Out of sight.” 

Throughout the entire record there is a constant sense of dislocation and isolation.  Those disorientating vocals are like ghosts or head voices, challenging you.  They are often incomprehensible – and that is also unsettling.  The odd and constantly changing time signatures create and the instrumentation create this “selection of snapshots of a world askew”.

There are several instrumental pieces – The oddball ‘Selling Mustard Seed’”, the freakish Sci-fi  number ‘They're Everywhere’; and more weirdness on ‘Nagoya Gogo’ and ‘Washable Pok Dum Blean’ which sounds like Tom Waits has snuck into the gamelan storage room and had a jam after drinking too much malt liquor. That last one features a ‘milk-carton’ shamisen (a type of kabuki guitar) and a potnan (a sort of bell, like a gamelan), both common Chinese street musician’s instruments.

There are references to wet markets, political wastelands and rigged elections, ‘Panspeciel Transmission’ (that’s what scientists do with DNA to manipulate the species) and grandiose philosophies from the ancient world.  That occurs on ‘Grandees Ball’ which talks of a decay of a civilisation and our dead being transported across the Styx river, that boundary that lies between all of us here on Earth and the Underworld.  Clearly a reference to the unnecessary deaths caused by those leaders around the world who spread ‘fake news’ or denied the real impacts of Covid.   

There are also a couple of more ‘typical’ songs here – ‘Poison Pigeons’ and ‘On the Shelf’ – which are almost love songs to the Covid affected.  And there’s a cover.  Made famous by the Seekers, ‘Isa Lei’ is a traditional Fijian Farewell song.  This version is not the light and breezy send-off that tourists to the Islands may have encountered.  It also has a double layered meaning, with Fiji’s infection rates now being so high.  It’s a song with a different departure in mind. 

‘Pansousiance’ is an hour of difficult listening, an artistic response to soundbites from last year’s One O’Clock stand ups.  Listening during a second major pandemic is even more challenging.  It’s a very clever audio document of our unpredictable times.  Proceed with caution. 

1 comment:

Steve Garden said...

Fantastic review, Tim. You nailed it! Thank you.