Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel 10, Real Numbers Wordless Wonder
Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel
Pitchfork recently unleashed its “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” list, which made this writer alternately nod in agreement, smirk in mild disagreement and shake his head violently at some of the more confounding choices and omissions.
“Best of All Time” lists can be awkward; indeed, establishing a canon can be useful for newcomers, and certain widely-heard albums are favored for indisputable impact and influence. Music discovery can be a lonely endeavor, and through codified lists, listeners sometimes find comfort in an objective type of validation, if only for the social aspects.
But as individuals, we must take in music fiercely subjectively to be true to ourselves, and to give partial credit to Pitchfork, some of those list selections seem to be severely subjective. This writer brings this up because he cannot stop playing the new album 10 by the aptly named Atlanta-based Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel—Scott Burland on the former, Frank Schultz on the latter—which most often ventures into improvised ambient territory.
It’s an absorbing album, impeccably sequenced without a misstep for its hour-long duration; with its two non-fixed-pitch instruments, treated with effects, it’s the perfect fall weather soundtrack, conveying warmth but with a frosty, crystalline purity and ambiguous moods, hovering in a grey space that’s haunted, melancholic and hopeful.
Opening with a short burst of static, “Dulcamara” establishes a sequence of reverberating two-note chords with gliding Theremin notes evoking a sort of bowed-string timbre, and extending the mood is “Serpentariae,” with echoing clangs and a secretive fog.
“Sanguinaria” brings dissonance right where it needs to be, after the two soothing openers, for disruptive variation, and guest musician Jeff Crompton offers smooth, slightly smoky saxophone and clarinet lines on “Absinthium,” applied like brushstrokes to a neutral canvas. The album closes with the 10-minute “Aether Fortior” with a mysterious haze punctured with the chirps of birds.
After ten years of existence—hence, the album’s title—the duet has come up with its best album yet, which astoundingly was mostly recorded in a single weekend; with a celebratory spirit, it’s no accident that the trend of previous monochromatic album covers has been broken, with 10 featuring a colorful painting from artist R. Land and design from Grammy-winner Susan Archie.
As a reviewer who encounters hundreds of new releases every year and deems, roughly, 75 percent of them to be unremarkable, mediocre or unlistenable, it always seems like a minor miracle to find beautiful music like this, with which a true connection is made.
When a band records a new album and attempts to get some attention, it doesn’t just have to compete with its contemporaries; no, it also has to compete with the entire history of recorded music. How do you stand out, among the endless avalanche of new releases? Is anything original? Are you doomed to repeat history?
This writer experienced three distinct phases when listening to the (proper) debut album Wordless Wonder from the Minneapolis indie power-pop band Real Numbers. The first was, “This is pretty good. Real energy!” The second was, “Wait a second. This sounds exactly like British C86 pop. What happened to originality? Come on!” And the third was, “Oh, who cares? Just enjoy it!”
The key to enjoying Wordless Wonder is to not overthink it; it’s rarely less than a joy on its ten tracks, spanning a tidy 25 minutes with jangly, treble-heavy rhythm guitar galore and melodies that make a bee-line to your listening pleasure centers.
The quartet—vocalist/guitarist Eli Hansen, bassist John Eggerman, drummer James Blackfield and lead guitarist Ian Nygaard—is tight and able, but there’s a sort of D.I.Y. feel to it; it’s not out-of-tune, but it’s not perfectly in-tune, if that makes sense, in stark contrast with overcompressed, Autotuned audio aesthetics in the mainstream.
Hansen’s pronunciation of vowels makes him sound like a British person who is trying to sound like an American, and the two lead voices on “Frank Infatuation,” singing the same melody separated by an octave, bring to mind the British band Veronica Falls, who happen to be labelmates.
Not only does the group sound like British C86 pop, but also, it allegedly writes songs about that era of indie-pop, including subjects such as the band Television Personalities and the mid-’80s fanzine Are You Scared to Get Happy?; however, the lyrics are obscured just enough to escape verification.
If you’re wondering how to grapple with indie-pop history, here’s this writer’s suggestion: first, check out the original C86 compilation, dive into the Sarah Records catalog, and then enjoy the thoroughly charming Wordless Wonder, guilt-free.