Will Oldham, Seafarers Music, 2004

Seafarers was a documentary made by Jason Massot which “followed four different merchant-marine guys from four different countries who were all in the port of Rotterdam … one of the biggest commercial seaports in the world” (Oldham). These men, a Swede, a Croat, a Polynesian and a Nigerian, are all waiting to return to the sea. Of this soundtrack Timeout magazine says Oldham’s “ambient acoustic score giv[es] a melancholy music to the echoing halls and empty reaches of the docks and ‘placeless’ industrial zones” seen in the footage. The reason the music is so similar to that heard on Ode Music is because Massot wanted to use Ode Music, but Oldham refused, saying that he would record something new. Hence we get Seafarers Music, four more tracks of pleasant acoustic arpeggios and rhythms rolling around. One could safely assume that the song titles are named after the four men that the doco focuses on. So, what we have are four extended miniatures…

Sapele… is the Nigerian’s theme. It sounds like two acoustic guitars. One playing a repeating one or two note backing, while the other plays a rollicking melody full of movement and forward motion, quite simple, but somehow affecting a real sense of sustained energy, riding and rolling along with a strong sense of melody. It occasionally pulls back, dithers in a short moment of stagnation before taking off again, until a bass joins, anchoring the piece with a heavier vibe. Lots of squeaky fret-scrape. As one who plays repetitive little ditties on a guitar myself, I can observe how even though the same music is being played over and over, there is something that evolves here, some sense of understanding, something in the phases of the notes blending.

Lars… would have to be the Swede. His melody is very similar to Sapele’s, but a little slower, a little more pensive, except when the change occurs, when we get four bars of a sudden louder higher note sliding up the fretboard. At first Lars is moodier than Sapele, but after a bass note joins, he seems to be looking around more, observing the goings-on around him, with more active interest, pausing, looking down, thinking about something, until something catches his attention again, and he’s off, finding something to occupy his thoughts with. Just like “Sapele” the set of sixteen or so bars are repeated several times until the point where they take on an evolutionary life of their own. There’s a touch of field recording in here, a submerged rough gurgly sound, very faint, beneath the music. The tune is quick, sharp, really nice. I much prefer Seafarer’s Songs to Ode Music.

Bogo… I’m going to guess Bogo is the Polynesian but he could be the Croat. His tune is slower still, and sparser, one finger thumbing a single note, the others playing a pensive melancholy melody that suggests stillness. After a minute, a faint sense of ‘echo’ is added to the guitar part, such that it sounds like it’s being played in a small square surrounded by buildings, as though there’s footsteps down cobblestone streets. The guitar playing is slightly more percussive, one particular note, a high one, plucked with vigour. An electric guitar joins at one point, offers fiddly blips of ornamentation, a harmonic contrast to the main melody, nice touch that; it complicates the tune a little, brings in a sense of memory or nostalgia or yearning, the dream of a past. There are fuzzy little bits where the tune seems to momentarily falter, like ash, a cigarette ground out by a foot, the thoughts briefly disrupted, then resumed. Bogo gets up, goes for an amble around the dock, whence we have electric guitar, acoustic and a warm bass note, the ambience is enlivened slightly. Towards the end there are neat little warbling tones, and some deliberate fret-scratching, like animal noises, or rats squeaking. And finally, it’s as if the melody drifts apart at the seams.

Emmanuel…  gets a melody almost identical to Bogo, albeit slower still, with a couple of different parts just out of sync to give it a fumbly tripsy feel, until a warm bass note joins, and a lightly humming organ tone, as well as occasional miniaturist interjections on electric guitar. Thus we have quite a little combination going on here. The electric guitar takes up a role that ‘answers’ the simple acoustic melody. What’s happening? That organ makes this sound slightly ominous, but it turns the tune into something more complex than we’ve heard yet. A waspish buzz fuzzes in for a couple of bars, gets kind of intense and disappears. I can’t seem to discern a mood here, so much as imagine things happening on the dock, mechanical things, cranes lifting containers, a whirring sound, a freer floatier melody, less like clockwork than the first three tracks. Finally back to just acoustic guitar and fade out.

Seafarers Music is nice to listen to every now and then, but as with most Oldham soundtracks, it doesn’t hold my interest for long. For other Oldham soundtracks besides Ode Music, 2000, see Black/Rich Music, 1998 and Slitch Music, 2002, too.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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