. issue XV : iv .

by barathron

. artist : steeping .
. album : alphabets .
. year : 2013 .
. label : self-released .
. grade : a minus .


Steeping by Alphabets is aromatic. Its cover is seaside dodge; it drinks from a mug and not a glass; it’s shot with the ’58 Keystone K26, amber filter. It’s knee socks, keyhole bodice, cable knit; floral, pearls, frocks and hems. It’s a tired vinyl by turns watery grain and analog mechanicals drowning in the manual crank of the film advance and the transductive hiccoughs of the needle … overridden small divisions exclaiming themselves with a tindered crackle the tone of an wallpapered, grainy-lighted flat in Alameda on a Super-8 home movie: aubergine and amaranthine, celadon and filemot, taupe and too much beige. Alphabets, with the most lucid self-assessment, call Steeping “hypnagogic.” It’s a tired, patient place, febrile in chilly air, with a multiplicity of undressed rooms for waiting.

Opener “Usually/Always” is too-nice. Paced at an arm-swinging adagio, it’s chalet skirt rustles, cork plunkings and pendulum oscillation. Absurd barking is heralded by bedroom-whispered confirmation from a man who sounds like a tranquilized Eugene Robinson: “dog.” A reassuring clarinet drone plays an interval-turned-melody in the background; a Sunday morning jazz guitar plays a soft rendition of what’s possibly something commodifiable. The fade is a forfeit, as though the record’s worn smooth, then slunk into its own muted refuge.

The stutter and shuttered sway of interlude “Plainsong” does make a striking prayer: “If love had a sound, this would be that sound.”

“Break” has the jostle of dust as the cinema wakes up, the five-person pit orchestra — tenuous clarinet presides — stirs to tune, and soft strings emulate the sliding depressions of time along seasons and runs of crowds. A drum skin rebounds and a harp curtain rustles. It’s also a wood cabin coffeepot, tinder, and wool coverlets worn slender thin and faded until now, late spring or early winter, all windowsills and brave, obliging birds. Soft clacks are like wooden spoons astir; the light is peeking through slats and crawling along the floor: homemade. The intensity of the ambient crackle from the vinyl varies its sentient snug touch. Sleepy kitchenware were iron and plastic hung on mid-tone paneled walls, chilly and hazy, but sunny. Touching piano keys are heartfelt and understated — the 9-year-old daughter prolongs her lazy morning. Then clacks and high-hats — the poking of drum skins — form a just-as-understated beat, the hiss of needle skipping sometimes serving as a pulse in itself.

“Feel Anything” omits its question mark with the antidote of time; it is the spacious plunk of the pendulum, mainspring to clutch to pallet; clepsydrae strike a tone that walks down through short-circuits and frazzly electronic breaches.

“Sun/Rises” is the ticking on the mantle, mobile clack and clave chime, percussion and plucked pivot; metallophone windvanes clunk when prompted. It is sedate, crisp and blurry and vice versa: the fading resolution of the piece like senses ‘going,’ spotty blindsight … selective prosopagnosia for people in cardigans from the 70’s. Keys are all askew with an ambiguous mode from echo, a dobro tremble or guitar vibe or voice vibrato. “Rises” doesn’t feel like an ideal sunrise, and a voice-over confirms, “It’s nice to lie in the sun and just do nothing; of course, it’s better if you’re with someone you like.” This is an affectation of an early-80’s PBS special on VHS tape that you’ve been tricked, by its duller passage of time, into missing … with percussion.

“Sun/Shines” begins with too-gentle guitar and tambour waggle; summer sounds panning dock, gulls, slosh of waves on a boat, vintage beachside dunebuggy. An impromptu beat is formed with a man (“it’s”) and a woman (“ah-h”). The bass at midpoint becomes resonant in itself, superseding the analog flatness of the seaside … this is jarring at first, but eventually it gels one minute later. And as soon as it does, it’s replaced by the soft sweep of sun-warmed Midwestern wistfulness, loose and tumbleweedy, campfire gestures.

“Sun/Sets” begins with the houseparty hum: mantelpiece, green grapes and pot roast, cedars and gypsum, Maybelle guitar … but becomes a “wah wah wah wah wah” from whence? home movie band practice? Open beats are close to the body rim-and-high-hat cuts around excessive guitar strums and wineglass montage clinks-cufflinks-and-gab stifled by all the Peter Pan collars and embroidered pocket posies. The transistor radio saturates with background conversation. “Sets” feels musique concrete with only half its mind on the task, distracted in autumn, complacent, wan diode synapse telegraph by water thieves endlessly pouring.

by Brittany Tracy