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26 January 2016

Gastr del Sol - 'Camofleur' (Drag City)

More personal nostalgia (as if you haven't already endured heaps, if you've been reading this over the year): the release of Gastr del Sol's Camofleur in late 1997 was as impactful to me as Sgt. Pepper's or In Utero was to some people. Of course, there were very few people who I could share this with during my freshman year of college except a handful of friends. By the time this was released, the nascent Internet gossip (particularly the exalted droneon list, the archives of which from 1996-1999 I would kill to find) already indicated that the working relationship between Grubbs and O'Rourke had broken down, and Camofleur would be their last album. What I didn't realise then until it was released (and actually I forget about even now) is that Markus Popp joined as a full third member (or at least is credited as such) and whatever his impact was on the collaboration remains unknown - but the result is masterful. This is around (or just before) the time Jim O started producing Superchunk records and was talking in interviews about how much he loved Burt Bacharach, and this was not needless iconoclasm - it was an embracing of a plurality of sonic palette that served him really well on his first few Drag City solo albums, and surely influenced Camofleur immensely. What is more noticeable when listening to this, just five seconds into 'The Seasons Reverse', was how exuberant the sound was. Popp's digital glitching or whatever the hell he does (and that's not meant to be derogatory - I love me some early Oval) seems to propel these songs with a brightness that you could argue Upgrade & Afterlife lacked. It's not just that there was now a beat behind things, but that even Grubb's singing found a more conventional melodicism and while the lyrics are not necessarily any less cryptic, they feel truly like they support the musical idea rather than digging in their heels against comprehension. This opening track ends with an explosive cornet solo (one that I remember caused some controversy on droneon, cause after all, there are rules for experimental music, right?) and then it leads into a great bit of field recordings with O'Rourke attempting to communicate to a confused, non-English speaking child. 'Black Horse' is a thick, lush instrumental that sounds remarkably straight-forward compared to, say, 'Hello Spiral', but to me follows logically from that aesthetic. My local radio station used it as their station ID music bed for years so it conjures a special feeling; YouTube shows a live version from 1995 as just a guitar/bass/drums trio that feels like exactly the same song, yet completely different at the same time - so it's composition predates Upgrade but was wisely left off because (probably) it didn't fit the mood of that album. A song such as 'Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder' would have sounded like 'Rebecca Sylvester' on an earlier work, but the Camofleur transformation adds some fruit to this dinner plate; Popp's waterfall of digital effects feels as warm and organic as Systemisch and the cryptic, circular nature of Grubbs's worldview is something I love to lose myself in. 'Mouth Canyon' is the debut (as far as I know) of Jim O as a vocalist, and it also has this really wonderful opening passage that is like a series of breezes blowing against you - bleeping electronic tones and wind instruments come together in a magical harmony. 'A Puff of Dew' is the darkness before the dawn - a molasses-drenched swamp of stasis, with Grubbs intoning about staircases and mountains. I think Camofleur is by far the most American Gastr record, sounding influenced by landscape and other scenery throughout; 'A Puff of Dew' brings a dark undercurrent to the surface, and is one of the only mentions of an air mattress in a song that I can think of. And then it all comes to a summation with the instrumental beauty 'Bauchredner', the final march towards a higher consciousness. As it's the last track ever released by Gastr del Sol, it feels like a fitting conclusion.

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