Pillow Mountain Records, 2011, DD album, 1h 21m 21s, £TBC
I review quite a variety of recordings that are experimental, avant-garde, unconventional or just plain uncommercial, and it is often hard to find an appropriate genre tag to put at the top, and to file them under in my collection. Usually the artists are no help at all, and leave ‘genre’ blank in the ID3 tags. It was nice to receive some music from an artist who’s willing to commit himself to a genre: it doesn’t, after all, represent any kind of an obligation, or endorsement of genre boundaries, but just a friendly gesture to the listener, and a willingness to describe the music in terms its potential audience will understand. So if Steve Lawson says this is ambient, that’s good enough for me.
The pieces on this album are indeed highly atmospheric, but don’t let this lead you to believe that ambience is all, or even principally, what the music is about. The principal quality of these tunes, their defining feature, and the central locus of Lawson’s creative effort, is melody. Pretty, haunting, lyrical melody, with a clear debt to jazz, but possessed of a self-confident harmonic simplicity, runs through this album like the plot of a novel. Perhaps it is because he is well established in the live-looping solo bass scene that Lawson feels he has nothing to prove, but the predominant impression is of someone who, as a player and a man, is comfortable in their skin. Musically straightforward, devoid of technical gymnastics (although not without technical accomplishment, as evident in the consistently burnished tone), and not especially challenging to the listener, this is an album with stories to tell, but no axes to grind.
Bass guitars, particularly when processed, are capable of an astonishing variety of sounds, and those with six strings and twenty-four frets have a range of over four octaves, so it is by no means predictable what a solo bass artist will sound like. Steve Lawson’s method here is predominantly to loop some harmony, either gently kinetic plucking, or arrhythmic pads, and then to improvise melody on top of it. ‘Travelling North’ has a low key percussive element, and ‘Moon Landing On What’ revolves entirely around the manipulation of synth-like sound washes, but the majority of the recordings have a straightforward homophonic texture. There are many and varied manipulations of the instruments’ sound, but these serve to enrich and deepen the atmosphere, rather than drawing attention to themselves.
I’ve had occasion recently to consider carefully the relation between words and music, while reviewing vocal songs: the pieces collected here are articulated entirely through the voice of Lawson’s fretted and fretless bass guitars, but he introduces a verbal, semantic element through his inclusion of detailed and specific sleeve notes. This album, at over eighty minutes in length, will only be available as a download, and the download will include a text file of some sort (my review copy came with a PDF which may or may not be identical to the release notes). For each recording there is a paragraph which sets out the intention behind the title, and effectively tells us what the music means, to Lawson himself, at any rate. It is very interesting to know what he was thinking about at the time that each track was composed/ conceived/ improvised/ assembled; how close the feelings they will engender in their listeners are to the feelings that inspired them is a matter for individual reflection, but as with the lyrics to a song, the short essays Lawson provides constitute an added dimension to the experience of the music. If his creative vision presents any kind of challenge or difficulty, it is a challenge to engage actively with the music, and to relate his explicitly intended meanings to those we bring to, or read into it.
I’ve recently reviewed work from two other solo bass performers, and in both cases it was work that got in your face in a rather more direct way. In the case of Russ Sargeant it is aesthetically challenging music, in that, while pretty on the surface, it engages with some painful emotional subject matter; and with Simon Little, there is a far stronger focus on timbral and textural invention. The ‘sleeve’ notes provide an insight into the reasons for this difference: Lawson, so far as I can discern, seems to be having a deeply satisfying, creative, stimulating and inspiring time. To put it simply, he sounds as happy as a pig in shit.
Even on ‘I Will Fix It Tonight By Dining On Artichokes’, where he explores the cracks between tonal and atonal improvisation, and employs some moderately disruptive processing, there is a sense of the pastoral to his playing: the atmosphere he generates is certainly a long way from being disturbing or difficult. Similarly, in ‘Travelling North’, he employs a fizzing, saturated distortion, that could so easily have sounded heavy, but it sits happily in his warm, consonant harmonies, and sinks without a ripple into his soundworld.
In fact, a sense of the pastoral is something I take from the entire album. The pastoral is a somewhat neglected genre in modern popular music, but perhaps less so in the kind of experimental, solo bass performances that are often (to my great irritation) labeled as ‘new age’. Much of this music functions, to my ear, as a celebration of a relatively static life experience, of the author’s daily bread, rather than their adventures; if there is any disjunct between Lawson’s avowed intentions and my listening experience, it is that I hear rather more melancholy than he ascribes to his work, but there is a very strong sense of place, and of experience. These are the moods of phases of life, like the ebb and flow of the long hot summers of childhood.
The danger of such gently ambient music, with it’s lack of sharp corners, or rhythmic and harmonic tensions, is that it can slip by almost unnoticed. Indeed, the idea of ambient music was initially as much to be an environmental condition as a creative discourse. I rather doubt that Steve Lawson wants anyone to ignore his music, or to relegate it to the status of aural wallpaper, but there is a marked absence of obvious drama or pain in his subject matter, and at times it verges on the anodyne. It is of course any creative person’s right to use their work as an expression of their self, and their lived experience, but audiences like to hear stories, journeys, and the release of tension. Myself, I like diversity, and I find it satisfying to hear music that engages with emotional materials of a less obviously creatively promising nature: the flip side of an audience’s need to hear some kind of dialectic, is that the kind of positive, uncontroversial experiences we value most in our lives are the hardest to give voice to. Any songwriter will tell you how hard it is to write a happy song that doesn’t sound cheesy or sentimental. This music is neither: many listeners will let it waft gently through whatever else they are doing; those that listen closely will be rewarded with insights of a subtler and gentler sort than they may have been expecting.