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The One Ensemble & Sarah Kenchington, "Dummy Jim"

I haven’t seen Dummy Jim yet, but if this soundtrack is any indication, it must be a truly unconventional and memorable film.  With the aid of bizarre instrument builder Sarah Kenchington, Daniel Padden and his cohorts have created a kaleidoscopic collision of traditional Anglo-folk, free jazz, drone, and deep-seated eccentricity that sounds like absolutely no one else.

 

Unshaped Led

“Dummy Jim” was James Duthie, a deaf-mute Scotsman who embarked upon a 10,000 mile bicycle tour in 1951.  A copy of Duthie’s rare published journal (I Cycled into the Arctic Circle) found its way into a used bookstore on the Isle of Iona.  As it happens, director Matt Hulse’s mother worked there and she snapped it up and brought it home.  Hulse was immediately struck by the strangeness and warmth of Duthie’s tale and Dummy Jim soon came into being.  To Hulse’s great credit, he has enlisted some of the only musicians around that are idiosyncratic enough to befit the subject matter.  Few directors would risk using music this attention-grabbing in a film.

The music here will probably not surprise anyone that is familiar with The One Ensemble’s previous work, but it is likely to be revelatory for those who haven’t.  The album is made up 19 pieces of varying lengths, some of which are actual songs with vocals (usually by Aby Vulliamy) and some are more incidental in nature.  The Ensemble’s aesthetic remains quite coherent throughout though: Dummy Jim is a very organic and abstractly folky album, built around haunting strings, wheezing horns, and sleepy woodwinds.  Of course, Kenchington’s instrumental Frankensteins are far from traditional in appearance and performance, but they all basically still sound like brass or wooden instruments, so there are no jarring stylistic shifts.

The similarities to traditional folk music pretty much end at instrumentation and timbre, however (although some relatively straightforward melodies make intermittent appearances).  The Ensemble’s odd lurching rhythms, creative layering, and shambling interplay combine to transform rather basic materials into something quite unique.  These same characteristics are prominently displayed on the songs written by Kenchington too, as her mechanized sculptures often lock into odd, repeating loops of strange, disjointed sounds that slowly cohere and escalate in intensity (such as in “Cows”).  Incidentally, the liner notes don’t make it entirely clear whether any collaboration occurred between Sarah and the Ensemble, aside from on just one track.  I don’t think there was, though Kenchington and Padden have recorded together in the past.  Regardless, the album fits seamlessly together anyway.   

The whole album is generally compelling and is probably best when taken in its entirety, but there are three distinct types of songs (aside from the handful of rather brief Kenchington pieces). First, there are the dense, rippling drone pieces, such as “Universal Wonders” or “Lumberjacks,” which approximate the low drone of a bagpipe ensemble using bowed strings and sustained brass, while clattering improvised percussion skitters and crashes all around.  Then there are some relatively straightforward soundtrack pieces, such as the quirky and propulsive “Better to Wear Out Shoes Than Sheets,” which sometimes feature some achingly beautiful intertwining strings.  Even these pieces sound unique, as Padden and company imbue them with a ragged humanity and subtle avant-garde touches like prickly microtones.  Finally, there are bizarre, cartoonishly stumbling pieces like “A Couple of Jumpers,” which undulate like inebriated caterpillars.  As a consequence, the album follows a rather odd trajectory, rife with unexpected twists.

Notably, I have generally not been a big fan of Padden’s work in the past, as I could not get past his absurdist tendencies or manic forays into the Zornification of Jewish/Eastern European melodies.  Those tendencies are largely minimized here, however, enabling me to finally appreciate The One Ensemble’s strange and beautiful vision without distraction (I guess I have some back catalog reevaluating to get started on).  Obviously, music this fiercely individualistic is not for everybody, but if a deranged, but skillfully harnessed, mash-up of Ornette Coleman, Harry Partch, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and Captain Beefheart sounds at all appealing, this is a pretty great place to start.  Regardless, Dummy Jim is anything but boring.

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Review of the Day

"No Watches, No Maps"
While the Fat Cat people boast about their committment to introducing fresh new artists, they've played the game relatively safe for their entire existence. A successful record label has to establish themselves pretty much before they can make bold moves like this one, releasing a CD comprised entirely of demos received by the label from complete unknowns. Fat Cat established themselves by releasing an assortment of buzzworthy 12" split singles, sneaking in a relatively unknown act on one side with an established act on the other side. In sales it's called the "foot in the door technique" — now that we've got your attention, try this! The label's intentions are well and this technique sure paid off.
Conceived over two years ago, this collection gathers 74 minutes of people you most likely have never heard of, many of which will probably not surface again. While Fat Cat have pointed out that they love all of these songs, limitations of the label have only allowed them time, budget and manpower to do full releases of a couple, two of which Com.A and Duplo Remote have tracks appearing here. The collection is surprisingly impressive, starting off with the brief abrasive noise of QT?, continuing on with glitch electronica Autechre worshipping sound of Phluidbox, the sci-fi death theme sounds from Jetone and pentatonic Asian taste of Zooey. By the time it reaches the slick production of the instrumental Fridge-ish jam, Ukiyo-E's "Val Doonican," the grand scope of the collection is shifted, transforming it from a collection of random electronics to something more. At this point, the compilation of unknowns begins to strangely mirror a well-constructed soundtrack or an 80s-era cassette-only comp. Changes continue when the pounding abrasive head nodding track from Moneyshot bursts in, a melancholy piano piece from Beans arrives a few tracks later, followed by more electronic and organic contributions including the gorgeous low-tempo submission from Cytokine.
While each of the 19 songs on here are quality work, it's easy to tell that all of these artists are still in the infancy of their careers, with much more to learn about originality, composition and production. Much like releases like the "Rising from the Red Sand" comps for example, I'm predicting this disc will become one of those collectable references on discographies popping up years from now. On the horizon for the label is a section on their website with exchanges of music like this and hopefully more collections.

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