and Vicky Fong
It was hard not to reflect on Andy Doe’s record industry analysis while sorting through CDs this week, particularly the suggestion that “if a record isn’t unique, it shouldn’t have been made.”
There are plenty of unique albums out there, of course, but San Francisco-based Common Eider, King Eider’s Sense of Place is a particular standout in this regard. The physical product is actually a paired DVD and CD, the audio tracks included on each designed to be played simultaneously while footage documenting the building of a small cabin in Alaska fills the screen. The set also includes a 56-page softcover book almost exclusively devoted to images from that same Alaskan construction project, but also including a poem by Ben Chasny that might be a meditation on the merits of building a hut of one’s own, an outline of the genesis of the album (it almost reads like a score for the piece), or perhaps an even broader reflection on place and dreaming. Regardless, its admonishment that “one should always have a well built hut to keep an eye on the horizon” neatly compliments the piece contained on the discs in the separate folded paper packet.
It’s also where the words end, though in a sense the entire bundle taken together could be taken as more of a short story spare on words than a straight-up album. The unusual packaging of the project lends an air of mystery to the proceedings, like receiving keys and a map to an adventure of unknown parameters ahead.
While this is the first piece by Common Eider, King Eider that I’ve experienced, a perusal of their back catalog on their new website shows a deep affection for spare orchestration, slow evolution, amplified quiet. In Sense of Place, the ensemble (Rob Fisk, Blaine Todd, and Vicky Fong) keeps to that aesthetic, mixing an ambient score of male and female wordless vocal tones and whispers over a bed of distant organ drone, the character more ancient and haunted than necessarily delicate. The voices echo, sometimes muffled—frozen spirits calling across the snow-covered landscape as the images capture three people erecting a shelter among the trees.
The dual tracks (each emphasizes and/or compliments different parts of the mix as the work ebbs and flows) must each be started by the listener, make the recording alive in some sense, the slight variation possible lending an impermanent quality to each performance.
I will concede that visually, I wasn’t much of a fan of the work at first. The shaky, home-movie character disappointed me initially. It wasn’t beautiful in the way I was expecting it to be beautiful. On subsequent viewings however, my opinion did a 180, the style adding a kind of visual timbre to the piece and carving an additional interesting facet into this unusual travelogue. While the music moans closely to the ear, visually the audience is kept at arm’s length, observing either the very practical and rough ordinariness of building or catching glimpses of the landscape, the sun reflecting across vast expanses of crisp snow bed, mountains visible in the distance. As the piece moves towards its conclusion, I experienced a nervous tension in the isolated landscape. It was a relief whenever a person would appear in the frame.
Yet in the end, there is a fire going, a finished cabin, a shelter made—and, ultimately, an album constructed that’s part postcard and part poetry.