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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.




Review of the Day

After three years of eclectic 7" singles and a couple of Fanny CDs, my favorite Ant-Zen sublabel Mirex presents its first-ever compilation. Many people seem to worship the Hymen sister label yet neglect this high-quality breakcore imprint, although this intense collection will surely attract new converts to join the ranks of the already respectable number of devotees. Carbon marks its unique place in the Ant-Zen tradition by screaming Top 40 song lyrics at the top of its lungs, pissing blood all over the rug, and boasting a roster of familiar established names as well as rising underground scene stars. Here, breakcore displays its many hideous and goofy faces in true schizophrenic fashion, and while industrial purists may revel in the brutality of Hecate and recent signing Subskan, many will be tempted to cringe over the subversive mash-up experiments of Ove-Naxx and Donna Summer. Those who resist the knee-jerk anti-pop reflex and stay open-minded will be aurally rewarded for their efforts. Representative of the style off his full-length From Zero, Enduser's "Basement" creatively fuses a somber Tori Amos piano riff and ragga MC toasting with crunchy junglist and hip hop loops. Drop The Lime makes an appearance here with "Chump Killers," a DSP-fucked blend of spastic electro-funk and hyperactive broken beats akin to his work for the likeminded Tigerbeat6 label. "Kiss Me On The Dancefloor," the phenomenal selection from Sickboy, throws together a maddeningly delicious, yet undeniably aggressive, update of old school rave. Mirex would do well to snatch up more of this guy's work for a CD release immediately. Atypical to this release, Line 47's "Taken Away" offers an unusual yet gratifying moment where the noise and mischief are somewhat toned down in favor of melancholy and melody. From Blaerg's Hitchcockian beginnings to End's Morricone-inspired closer, these twenty tracks continually pummel the speakers and delight the ears. Though notably lacking any presence of the notoriously prolific Venetian Snares, arguably the biggest name in the subgenre today, Carbon comes out stronger than any breakcore compilation I've heard to date, including those that do include the Snares Man. While I am tempted to call Mirex "a label to watch," people should have have honestly caught on before now. Jump on the bandwagon now and perhaps the rest of us will accept you... in time. 


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