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Marielle V. Jakobsons, "Star Core"

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cover imageFor better or worse, Marielle Jakobsons’ first solo album for Thrill Jockey continues her evolution away from her darker and heavier early work into more mellow, gently psychedelic territory more in line with her Date Palms project.  On the one hand, that makes sense, as Date Palms is probably the most popular of Jakobsons' many endeavors and quasi-New Age revivalism is still more or less in vogue.  On the other hand, I tend to loathe just about anything that resembles toothless pastoral burbling, regardless of who is making it.  Consequently, this direction is not for me much of the time.  While there are admittedly a few faint traces of the Jakobsons’ more distinctive and compelling past scattered throughout Star Core, this album is mostly significant for continuing the ambitious expansion of her palette and for being the first time that Marielle sings on record (as far as I know, anyway).  Also, the album's closing two pieces are sublimely mesmerizing.

Thrill Jockey

The opening "White Sparks" begins quite deceptively with some ominously dissonant low drones that set my heart a-flutter, but both the piece and the entire album quickly settle into a languorous, radiant, and twinkling haze.   Curiously, Jakobsons' violin is reduced to a mere droning shimmer or an occasional swell of color here, as she seems quite intent on becoming a one-woman psych rock band, albeit one with no guitars or percussion.  Instead, Jakobsons lays down a stoned and sleepy bassline, some pleasantly chiming and rippling synth melodies, and takes the mic for some vaporous, reverb-swathed vocals.  Closely scrutinized, "White Sparks" is actually a complexly layered and harmonically rich piece, but that is undercut by the fact that the piece is so drifting and hazy that it barely feels like a song.  It almost seems like Jakobsons' intent was to leave as little an impression as possible, a feat she seems to replicate repeatedly throughout Star Core.  Unfortunately, ego death is a much better goal in spirituality than it is in music.  Occasionally, however, there are some prominent and forceful motifs, such as the vaguely Eastern "desert rock" violin melody on the title piece, but mostly Jakobsons is content to just allow her synthesizers to amiably drone and twinkle.  Also, it is perplexing how little Marielle's decision to finally sing actually matters, as her vocals are little more than a bleary haze or a repeating wordless chant.  She might be singing, but she is very much fading into the background rather than stepping forward.

Thankfully, there are parts of Star Core that depart a bit from the otherwise pervasive "lounging on a hammock under the palm trees at a commune" vibe.   The first time my ears perked up was "The Beginning is the End," which is built upon a beautiful and vaguely mysterious flute melody.  While there are certainly plenty of analog synth tones to be found, they remain mostly understated and the flutes do a fine job of cutting through the artificiality to make the piece feel comparatively earthy and real.  It is a perverse irony that such an event can seem surprising, given how visceral and unrepentantly organic much of Jakobsons'work has been on previous albums like Fire Star, Ore, and Improvisations for Strings and Electronics.  Elsewhere, "Undone" stands as the best example of Jakobsons' "slow-motion psychedelia" aesthetic, as her diffuse and drifting groove is enhanced with heavy buzzing and throbbing synths, some hallucinatory flanging that resembles Tuvan throat singing, an effective dynamic arc, and some thick minor key flutes.  To my ears, "Undone" is Star Core's unquestionable zenith, exchanging benevolent serenity for an unexpectedly sultry and smeared foray into deep stoner rock.   The closing "The Sinking of the Sky," however, attempts to make lightning strike twice and arguably succeeds, despite being even more glacial and bleary than "Undone."  Thankfully, it boasts some impressively haunting and emotionally resonant flute and violin themes to compensate for its extended length and Quaalude pace.  In fact, I probably would not have minded if it had been twice as long, as Jakobsons hits upon a gorgeous sort of slow-motion trance nirvana.  That aesthetic seems to be the way forward and I hope Jakobsons sticks with it.  Weirdly, Star Core seems to be at its heaviest and most compelling only when Jakobsons picks up her flute, though her talents as a sound designer seem to play as much a role in that as her talents as a flautist, as the texture and layering seems more evocative than the actual melodies.

Interestingly, the critical response to this album elsewhere has been hugely favorable, which makes me wonder if I am either deaf, stupid, or terminally cranky, as I only liked about half of it.  I suspect part of my problem is my personal expectations, as I am coming at this album as a huge Marielle Jakobsons fan.  In one sense, that certainly makes me predisposed to love her work, but the more significant bias is that it makes me hugely exasperated to hear a once-formidable artist become gradually less and less distinctive and more and more serene.  The fact that Star Core is "cosmic" or that it calls to mind Terry Riley is not a selling point for me at all: there is already one Terry Riley, so I would much rather have a Marielle Jakobsons who sounds like only Marielle Jakobsons can sound.  When Star Core does not work, it is not necessarily bad so much as puzzling and forgettable–like a cross between 1.) a Liz Harris that found God, bought a synth, and became a yoga instructor, and 2.) Led Zeppelin’s "Kashmir" on a near-lethal dose of horse tranquilizers (I promise that imaginary combination is not nearly as compelling as it might sound).  I am tempted to say that I hope Marielle throws her synthesizer in a lake, but that is not fair: the synths work just fine when relegated to a textural role.  It is mostly just a question of finding a suitable balance between shimmering serenity and something a bit more substantial and forward-thinking.  On the final two pieces at least, Jakobsons nails it.  I suspect that Date Palms fans will probably love the entire album though, as will anyone enamored of the softer side of Kranky.

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Last Updated on Monday, 22 August 2016 07:47  


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