You are listening to a record. There’s the music, and then there’s everything else. The time of day, your mood, the room you’re in, the person you’re sitting with. Sometimes the “everything else” can obscure what’s happening with the music, other times it can clarify. In either case, the how and wherefore matter.
I knew Twine’s self-titled record was good the first time I put it on. It was clear that Greg Malcolm and Chad Mossholder had refined their approach, found what was most interesting about their moody style, and amplified it. But I didn’t really hear it until a few weeks later, when hurricane Isabel tore through Richmond in late September and my apartment was without electricity for ten days. The night the storm hit, my wife and I plugged one of my computer speakers into her Walkman radio so we could listen to the news and follow what was happening. Even as a passive transmitter (no batteries for its amp) the speakers made the headphone signal audible as long as we maxxed out the volume.
The next evening, after my wife went to bed and as I was reading by the light of a half-dozen candles, I plugged my CD Discman into the speaker and put on new Twine. With the Discman cranked to 10, the music was loud enough to be heard clearly, but having the internal headphone amp at that level imparted a faint halo of distortion. Which, at that moment, was perfect. It was completely dark except for the candles, even outside my window. Every house on the block, the streetlights, the traffic light on the corner—all were without power. And Twine sounded like they were being beamed in via shortwave from some place halfway around the world.
If only everyone could hear this album under those exact conditions (although you might want to skip the following morning’s bone-chilling shower in a bathroom so dark you can’t see your body to wash it), but it’s not necessary. All you really need is for the sun to go down. Twine is a quintessential nighttime record, filled with broken transmissions and drones stretching into the vanishing horizon; it’s the kind of night where an edge of paranoia is cut with flashes of comforting solitary bliss. You curl up to this thing.
By customary definition, Twine is an IDM act, but the comparisons that stream through my head when I’m listening to this record come from elsewhere. The beats are nothing alike and Twine haven’t a lick of hip-hop in them, but I can’t help thinking of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, the way this record uses disembodied voices and builds spacious atmosphere brick by brick. There’s also a hint of Stars of the Lid in the drones that Twine favor this time out, and cinematic rock a la Godspeed seems somehow related, although Twine eschew extreme dynamics, and their only conventional instruments are guitar and piano, both of which are treated and looped.
Ultimately, though, the thread holding Twine together is the voices. About half the tracks contain wordless vocals by Shelly Gracon and Alison Scola, and their contributions are key. On “Plectrum”, which is built around slowing strummed guitar, the voice is clipped and percussive, where a word is snatched from meaning mid-syllable and set looping, giving a feel reminiscent of Laurie Anderson. Furthering the modern music references, “Plectrum” combines the sharp punctuation with some Tehillim-style sacred howls. In contrast to this art music approach are the ethereal Middle Eastern vocal drones with Taj Mahal reverb that snake through the 12-minute “Kalea Morning”.
There are the live vocals, and then there are the words, pinched and compressed by cheap radio transistors, which crackle in and fade out almost constantly. Adding “lost transmissions” to brooding electronic soundscapes is nothing new, obviously, but there’s a subtlety to Twine’s approach that makes it work. The voices appear and dissolve unexpectedly and the meaning is unclear; what they’re actually saying doesn’t seem terribly important—the words are another layer in the dark cloud of sound that drifts slowly across the record. On “Pendant” an intercepted telephone conversation (an argument, maybe) is almost completely drowned out by the throb of electronic percussion. The track wouldn’t be complete without it.
Since forming in 1999, Twine have averaged a record a year, but their albums seem carefully laid out and constructed to work as individual pieces. They’re not tossing tracks willy-nilly at every compilation that comes along and then gathering them together as a new CD. Twine has no killer must-hear track, and yet, each piece benefits by its relationship to what came before and what follows. It’s an album in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and a damn good one. Try it at midnight first.