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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Graham Lambkin - No Better No Worse (Vol. 1) (label, 2018) ****½

By N. Metzger

No Better No Worse (Vol 1) is a collection of previously unreleased material from the multidisciplinary artist Graham Lambkin that spans the era of his solo material (2001 – present). It marks Lambkin’s first release since the ‘conscious conclusion’ of his label Kye at the end of 2017, as well as being the first issue from his recently established Bandcamp page (and as far as I’m aware, his first digital-only release). For those unfamiliar with Mr. Lambkin, his work in recorded media loosely and generally charts the paths of electroacoustic music, sound collage, and musique concrète. His collaborative efforts are multitude, and include endeavors with the likes of Keith Rowe, Jason Lescalleet, Michael Pisaro, and Joe McPhee to site specific examples. In addition to his work in sound, he is a talented visual artist and writer, as well as the founder and curator of the aforementioned Kye records, which published recordings from the likes of Astor, Moniek Darge, and Vanessa Rossetto to name a few. He has worked extensively with ErstWhile records, which released his masterpiece Community as part of the ErstSolo series back in 2016. His recordings, while not without precedents and contemporaries, are highly creative, playful, and original. Lo-fi field recordings, spoken word, gibberish, various bits of song (played by the artist himself or otherwise) make up a limited yet rich palette with which he composes his otherworldly pieces.

The collection begins with the massive piece ‘Summer Tape Work’, itself worth the price of admission. Beside the sound of water trickling unintelligible and disjointed voices whisper, grunt, and pant. There is a constant underlying element of tape hiss and electronic hum that permeate the piece. It’s very dreamlike, a quality that most of Lambkin’s solo pieces possess, where the sounds are familiar but exhibit an illusory embodiment. Elements come and go irregularly: water, chimes/bells, breathing, creaking, birdsong, whistles, played at normal speed, slowed down, stretched out unhurried, eerie, and impassive. It gives the sense of being moved around in space within some alternate reality. The proceeding tracks exhibit some of these same components as well as other rudiments that have become a trademark of his work. ‘Balloon Days’ offers a welcome pseudo-reprise of the previous track, while ‘Red Egg’ and ‘Traveling Song’ have their foundations in traditional melodies, with the former being a fairly straight-forward reading on wind instruments and the latter delivered in an odd yet strangely relatable childlike drivel. The tape drone of ‘Axion’ provides a transition into ‘Images in Oyster’, where we fall upon a familiar attribute of Lambkin’s work, a recording within a recording. This practice, which was used to full effect on his record Amateur Doubles, provides a context for the listener to share in the moment. Hearing the recording as the artist did, projecting this captured experience into your own and sharing the piece as a form of communion. ‘The Pack’ is a spoken word piece which sounds as if it were recorded in a steel tank, the reverberation causing the narrative to become tangled, ghostly, and near unintelligible. It’s punctuated by a bit of slipshod harmonica playing near the end à la Community. ‘Morning Song’ is a playful section of whistling and tape manipulation that provides a buffer to the final two pieces ‘Masks’ and ‘Concert Review’. Both are eccentric spoken work pieces, ‘Masks’ providing a characteristic Lambkin narrative and ‘Concert Review’ starting out as the title implies, with the artist describing an experience at a concert he’s just attended and trying to decide what it is he liked about it. In emblematic fashion, things get weird from there with a fittingly Dada-esque conclusion to the compilation. This might not sound at all appealing, and to the casual listener it probably isn’t, but those so inclined will appreciatively sit through the duration.

In general, my preference is for fully conceived works where the various sections are inter-related and build off each other. And as such, being critical, I’m predisposed to deducting points for compilations due to a general or perceived lack of cohesiveness. But this collection, perhaps due to the nature of the material, doesn’t come off as disjointed as one might expect. These pieces aren’t throwaways, rather as the title expresses they represent the artist as well as anything else he’s released. The sequencing is well done, whether intentionally or not, and that plays a role in the overall feel of consistency the album retains. And while no new elements are introduced the assortment still retains a uniqueness that will serve to differentiate it within his discography. Lambkin continues to release profound works of contemporary sound art that will provoke a response, whether adverse or auspicious, from the listener. Like the novel Ulysses, it isn’t always an effortless undertaking, but it’s my recommendation that anything he releases is well worth the effort to assimilate.