There’s something to be said for sounds and the people who love them. All musical artists worth a salt love music, they love songs, of course, duh. But I have a particular fascination for singers, songwriters, bands, orchestral three pieces, xylophone collectives, what have you, that are clearly fascinated with sound itself, as a medium. And when someone loves sound and songs? Oh boy. A songwriter who loves sounds is a potentially powerful musical force-a person who’s love for the communication extends to the mode of communication. The greatest artists are always like this: the best painters have a love for the color and texture beyond the paintings; the best writers, a love for words beyond the story.
Jasmine Wagner of Brooklyn/Montana’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities is exactly this kind of musician. Quite frankly, she’s this kind of writer and artist, too. Wagner, together with fellow sound-conspirator Alex Wilson are the items belonging to this curious natural cabinet. Together their folky tendencies and love of sound create a most serene concoction: 1 part soundscape, 2 parts folk song, all parts lovely.
You might be quick to call Cabinet of Natural Curiosities “experimental folk,” and you wouldn’t be the first one. The modifier “experimental” has quickly become a signifier of the “sound lover” state I described above, and in that way it is telling. However, in an imaginary world where genres weren’t predominantly used as some kind of socio-musical categorization, and merely used as description, Cabinet of Natural Curiosities might just as much be considered experimental electronica. For even though the foreground sounds are often the acoustic guitar and voice (the folk) I would argue that it’s what is in the background that actually makes Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, well, a curiosity.
Many of the songs on the full length Searchlight Needles (from which our two Ampeater tracks originate) are very frequently centered inside some kind of noise or atmosphere. When this is at its peak, on tracks such as “Little Ice Age,” “Sun,” or “Glass,” it feels like the songs are simply sung inside some great weather event or cave-the tracks become oddly geographical for me. I’ve been reading “The Ice Palace,” by Tarjei Vesaas recently, and I can’t help but picture “Little Ice Age” (available on their myspace) as taking place inside a frozen waterfall.
The point being, the electronics and noise used by Cabinet (Can I call them Cabinet for short? I can’t help but feel like when pitchfork gives their next LP (tentatively titled “Buttermilk Channel” ) an 8.5 and all the Greenwich Village hipsters start listening to them, this is what I’ll overhear the kids standing outside Tisch smoking cigarettes refer to them as…) are simultaneously apart from, and integral to, the songs. This is a wonderful effect and sounds more like Leonard Cohen playing next to Faust inside a subway station than anything else. It’s quite splendid.
Turning to the digital single we have on display here, the story is perhaps even more curious. More so than any of the other tracks on Searchlight Needles, I think, Side-A “For Sparrow”/Side-B “Owllullaby” are songs, not sounds. Flip to any track on the LP and you’ll know that Cabinet of Natural Curiosities loves sounds; but it’s not perhaps until you hear these two songs back to back that you realize just how much love Cabinet of Natural Curiosities has for The Song as well.
Take A-side “For Sparrow” for instance. The song centers around Wagner’s voice and strums, filled out by lush sine-wave drips and an insecurely steady organ hum that complete the atmosphere of the track. But it’s Wagner’s multi-layered vocals here that lift the song, pushing and pulling it along, finding slow beautiful hooks within this soundscape. Heck, drop the drips and the organ, and this is simply a folk song with a little bit of bass.
The last two minutes of “For Sparrow” give the game up, though, as the song fades away into an ambient sonic collage that maintains and extends the mood of the song like some strange held note. This “discursion” is nothing new in music, but what is slightly novel is the length of the track devoted to the sounds. What many bands might limit to 15 or 30 seconds as a “cool outro, bro,” Cabinet of Natural Curiosities let extend into a musical motion with more levity, owning almost a full quarter of the track’s running time. I love how the two sections of this track play off each other-at first listen, the ending is a bit of a surprise. However, it arises so organically that now I can’t picture the track without it. This, truly, is a song from lovers of sound, and they integrate the two elements in a way that would make it unruly to separate them.
B-side “Owllullaby” is, if I’m continuing with this sound/song contrast (thanks for bearing with me, by the way), is all song, baby. “Owllullaby” also not-so-coincidentally functions as the final track on Searchlight Needles. In the movie in my head of this album, this is when the musicians, who have until this point been battling through storms and ice caves and noise monsters, finally emerge into an open field to simply play, only voice, guitar, and some cheerful bells to accompany. The song is hypnotic, seductive, and really is a lullaby that I will consider singing to my kids, even though they will not be owls. The acoustic guitar sounds off in never-faltering 1-2-3-1-2-3 while the tiny high bells chirp in to accentuate the dream.
The transition from “For Sparrow” to “Owllullaby” actually mimics quite well the effect that the album has on how we perceive “Owllullaby” with the swirling last quarter of “For Sparrow”’s sonic glory resolving itself into the pleasant and satisfying plucking. Some of the branches lost their leaves / to show off the owls in the trees. / Some of those owls would agree / you should close your eyes and fall asleep. Yes, yes you should. This is music I want to fall asleep and dream to, and any good lover of ambient music (or music with some ambiance) knows that is far from an insult.
Wagner remarks that these two tracks fit together as an A-side/B-side because, “one is a winter song and one is a summer song. They oppose each other the way the seasons do. Both songs were written and recorded during a cold Montana winter, though ‘For Sparrow’ references a hot a smoky summer when the pine forests were burning and the skies of the Missoula valley were yellow and gray, the moon red at night.” I have three things to add/note on this.
First, I think this is good evidence that beautiful sentences simply tumble out of Wagner, potentially without her even meaning it. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a better sentence given to me in the body of an email.
Second, this dichotomy mimics the dichotomy of sounds I’ve been discussing that’s present in Cabinet of Natural Curiosity’s music, the hot of the human voice and guitar and cold, sterile electronics, or reversed, the hot highs of electronic warblings and the low steady hum of voice and string. Whichever way Cabinet of Natural Curiosity decides to play it, this contrast is always present in the songs. To me, that’s what’s in the cabinet. Something summer, and something winter.
Third, I shall add only that both of these songs are about birds. And when one travels to Wagner’s art site, one finds another bird to greet them. It makes a great deal of sense. Both of these songs are birds. Stunning, striking birds.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem058/01 For Sparrow.mp3