He Went To Jared: Fennesz - Endless Summer

Welcome back to another He Went To Jared (HWTJ). This time Jared has proposed Christian Fennesz's highly-regarded 2001 album Endless Summer. And as a special treat, Jared, yes the man himself! will be sitting in (via email from his transplant home in San Francisco, CA) to close out the bulk of the review.

Experimental electronic music is one of those music apparati that tends to be extremely divisive. As I recall from the good ol' days at my old job, there was much joking and jawing about the senseless "glitchy nonsense" that pours from the speakers. My feeling, listening to Endless Summer, an album that could easily fall into that category, is that our perception and reception of experimental electronic songs relies greatly on our individual willingness to sift and discover the melody. At first, Fennesz's work feels like a lot of fuzz, hollow echoes, clatter and static, much like listening to breaking waves along the sea shore (something I am sure is intentional given the album title), but there's also a very distinct backing melody. And there's the sense that the static you're hearing is the bouncing of an ancient phonograph needle, hearkening back to the golden days of summertime music appreciation. It takes a while to kick in, but once you have an ear for the way the music intended to sound, once you learn the language, so to speak, even the most distant, chaotic tracks take a more recognizable musical shape. It reminds me of a course Jared and I took in college on Art Aesthetics. Our professor said that he could never appreciate techno/dance music because he couldn't understand it. He couldn't find the melody trapped in the loops. Fennesz requires that skill. Be warned.

Even as I listened through the album, my mind made one of those instant word connections. You know, the ones that are normal and not at all unique to me or indicative that I'm about to have a brain-splosion. The connection was Fennesz and finesse. That's no mistake. This music is gentle, unpretentious and somehow effortless, but it still succeeds in construing, and imbuing, an emotional resonance that qualifies as an experience. Fun music, this is not, but valuable music, yes. You can feel through the tracks, something I know Jared will be discussing at length in just a few more sentences from me, the sunrise, sunset, crashing waves, the texture of beach sand, the cold of a breeze, and the heat of midday. There are no lyrics to tell you what to feel, so our imaginations, whatever we have left of them, makes those choices. These are songs that evoke memories, rather than creating them. And for me, there's something more powerful about drudging up something in the listener, than merely getting them to react to a sonic pratfall or melodrama. That doesn't make Fennesz or Endless Summer better than other music, but it does make it unique and necessary. I found myself with a special connection to "Caecilia" and "Shisheido," but to say that these are definitive is to undercut the value of the album as a whole. Now, I will turn to my dear pal and comrade in music-appreciative-arms, Jared. Note: I've linked as many of the track titles to a free listen below, so we can all share in the magic.

Good day, and welcome to this album!

Fennesz is a critically lauded experimental composer who has met with great success in Europe and other nearby areas, and Endless Summer created a very large cult following here. I've met people from all walks of life who love this album. I've met a lot who don't quite know what to think of it. I can't say, though, that I've met someone who actively dislikes it.

I can't quite pinpoint when I first heard this album. Pitchfork did a very glowing review (as well as a myriad of other blogs/sites, etc) and I thought I would do well to check it out. I remember hearing it at first (I think my first track was "Caecilia," which might be the most accessible song on the album) and not being certain. Now I can't imagine not hearing it. The same thing happened with My Bloody Valentine. I was driving home from the CD store in my car, playing it and wondering what the hell I was listening to. I was going to take the CD back, but I didn't. I gave it time. Now, Loveless might be the most influential thing I've ever heard. That's the opinion of me and roughly a billion other people now.

Loveless taught me how versatile music and the electric guitar could be. Since then, I've always enjoyed the large swell of guitars. It stemmed from My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Sigur Ros' heavenly drones. The idea of feedback as a viable and valid method of creating songs absolutely shaped my later (and current) tastes. Even larger, it shaped my opinion of what music could BE. This album opened a new chapter, for me, so to speak. I'm indebted to it. But it takes the sound of an electric guitar and doesn't wash over you with wave after wave of feedback. It divides it, shapes it, picks it apart and creates percussion from it. It warps it until it's hardly what it used to be. And it never forgets the primary purpose - a melody. This album isn't a chart-topping array of instantly-enjoyable pop songs, and yet pop forms the basis of it. Even the title is a nod to the sun-drenched, intricate melodies of the Beach Boys. This album is warm, complex, and completely unique. The production, though it might sound haphazard at first, yields itself to be meticulous and detailed (as said: this is a headphone album in every sense of the word). It's noise and it's pop and it's difficult and it's beautiful. Most importantly in the realm of various experimental artists and styles of said genres, be it electronic music or noise, it does a remarkable job of including an ever-present humanity to it. Let's get started.

1. "Made In Hong Kong" - This is a great opener because it lets you know, off the bat, what sort of album you're getting into. Pinpricks of noise come up with the gentle percolating of static underneath. All of these sounds, for the most part, are from his electric guitar. This is a classic build and technique of Fennesz. Like a house falling apart in reverse, elements gradually build, lean, sway, and eventually stack up to where, suddenly, you're listening to an actual song. Crackles and clips gather together until it becomes one of the best songs on the album.

2. "Endless Summer" - In what sounds like a summer on Mars, Fennesz mixes strums and picking. The warp is audible, but the guitar is there. What sounds like an acoustic guitar rests behind burbles of more warped guitar.The mixing on this always, always gives you more details if you listen to (and for) them. Halfway through, the main riffs take a vacation, so to speak, and fade out. You're left with a very minimal sound for a while, and then from the deep end of the pool comes the same riff, far back in the mix but still present. The human element is there - you can hear his fingers sliding against the strings. This song is, in a word, delicate.

3. "A Year In A Minute" - This track is one of the more simple songs on here. The fuzz on the guitar is warm and fuzzy, but not in the kitten sense. If you're familiar with some of My Bloody Valentine's more soft songs, this is a good comparison. Later, small glitches and pricks of sound come through, not abrasive but adding more texture. As the song progresses, these become bigger until the track fades into a more electronic smattering of round-panning sounds. The guitar comes back like a welcome friend, and there it is. As I'm in love with the sound of guitars that drape over you like a Snuggie (full disclosure: I've never worn a Snuggie but I've at least worn a blanket) [Nate note: A Snuggie is just a bathrobe on backwards. We all figured the product out as children and we should all be millionaires. Capitalism is a hideous bitch-goddess.], I take comfort in this album. It's one thing I can say about the mixing on this whole album: it wraps around you and doesn't leave you cold.

4. "Caecilia" - To me, this is the highlight of the album besides the last track. It's the most traditionally accessible song on the album and is the finest example of the Fennesz method of building a song from simple noises. At the start, the song feels out your eardrums with gentle bells and your normal Fennesz guitar. And then, suddenly, it takes all of these fragments and pushes a sort of swinging swell behind it that gives it a structure, a frame to then move like the warm, alive song that it is. I remember hearing this song and being struck by the arrival of the complete melody: what started as a blueprint comes into fruition with one deft move from Fennesz. The bass playing behind it gives it a backbone, the guitar gives it the flesh, and the layers upon layers give it motion. It's a beautiful creation and one of my favorite songs by him, if not the favorite.

5. "Got To Move On" - In what is one of the more experimental songs on the album, this might be more enjoyable to people who have tried to re-create various textures and sounds from their guitar. More feeling out sounds than a song like the prior track.

6. "Shisheido" - Like the title track, this brings to mind the more summer-like sounds. The guitar is cleaner in this, but various small pieces of feedback blip and burble around it. A soothing track, but still not letting you forget the more eclectic aspects of Fennesz - stuttering bits of prior strings played.

7. "Before I Leave" - The most experimental track on this album. It's a bit more heavy-handed in the idea of noise + melody. What sounds like a CD skipping, and choosing chords from it. It's probably the most difficult track on the album and, to be honest, not my favorite, but there's merit in it. It's overshadowed, however, by the final (and my other favorite track), "Happy Audio."

8. "Happy Audio" - This song loops but in an entirely different way than the colder "Before I Leave." "Before I Leave" is very up-front about the fact that it's manipulated audio because it's more robotic. This track is the opposite, and far and away the track that yields the most treasures from careful and repeated listenings. You hear a loop of what sounds like 3 seconds long, but there are very minor but careful sounds that guide it into a smoother loop, which the prior track completely abandoned. Please give this headphones. The track is the longest on the album, clocking in at 10 minutes and 55 seconds. It takes patience. As it loops, Fennesz gradually introduces what sounds like a phaser effect. It's very buried, but it's there. Light panning from ear to ear. It gradually gets more apparent, and while you have the backbone of the very first loop, which never leaves the song, the phased sounds becomes more pronounced. Again, "pronounced" in a very mild way. Further, very small bits of rougher texture come in. It sounds like a granulated effect, which is essentially taking a riff and treated it so that it's scrambled and made into a static of sorts. It rises in the mix. The length of this song means that Fennesz can take his time with the song and allow these sounds to blossom at a rate that is comparable to a long, steady drive to somewhere - that becomes practically unnoticeable until you're suddenly there.

I remember sitting outside of my apartment at Brookside in Boulder. I had recently decided to really try to find out what the big deal was about this album. In what is the most striking and wonderful part of the album to me, the song eventually rests on this bed of static and warm loops and bits and scattered fragments and as I listened and focused, I realized that there was another melody playing underneath all of this, and I then knew that I loved this album, because the sound appears to be a string section. It's largely bass, no high whine of violins, much more bass-heavy, but I swear it's there, and it blows me away. The subtlety of this album (and song) is remarkable -  it never chooses to hit you over the head with anything. Instead, if you search, you'll find some wonderful elements of someone taking a labor of love and making something really special. What can I say? I've fallen asleep to this song every night for 10 years.

I'd like to thank Jared for sitting in on this edition of HWTJ, and for sharing such an incredible sonic experience. Fennesz isn't going to fit every person's taste, but part of me feels that this is one of those essential, life-defining experiences with music. Missing out on something just because it lacks a traditional structure, lyrics, or a poppy hook, sort of precludes ALL of the unusual experiences that populate our lives. Yes, everything would be simpler if life was as concisely, formulaically crafted as a pop song. We'd all be singing and our emotions would be larger and more clear, but we'd all be fictional. Endless Summer turns pop music over, declaring that our narratives are not structured, and often they are so subtle we miss details until we go back several times. It's a beautifully complex album for a beautifully complex world.

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