Digital Release: 6/8/10
Physical Release: 7/13/10
Long in the making, Treasure State is a startling collaboration between two rogue American groups: Known for playing the music of Steve Reich, David Lang, and Paul Lansky, Brooklyn-based quartet So Percussion are acknowledged virtuoso performers of classical and avant-garde writing for percussion, and are increasingly recognized as composers in their own right. Musique-concrete oddballs brought into the mainstream by their collaboration with Bjork, Baltimorean electronic duo Matmos are infamous for turning bizarre sound sources (from plastic surgery to live snails) into shuffling rhythmic pop.
Bridging the gap from the conservatory to the laptop screen, these groups share a love of propulsive musical experiment. The resulting collaborative album is a checkerboard of Matmos and So Percussion compositions, but in each case these ensembles have reinforced each other's techniques and methodologies. The core of the record is a series of studies of the musical resources of everyday and not-so-everyday elemental materials: ceramic planters, pails of water, aluminum beer cans, cactus needles, cans of house paint. The result is a richly diverse yet highly listenable record that flows across a range of genres, sound sources, objects and styles to create an elemental American landscape.
Proudly polyglot, the hybrid songs on Treasure State differ from each other and from themselves. Starting as a gentle exercise in Martin Denny-esque Polynesian fantasy, Treasure erupts midway into a delirium of squealing animal noises, fuzzed out sitar and electric guitar from Mark Lightcap (of Acetone); after the squall, the song regains composure and returns gently to earth on a lush bed of grand piano and accordion from Zeena Parkins. Finding lyricism in the everyday, Water layers Dave Douglas' trumpet, crotales, glockenspiel and a ravishing steel drum performance from So's Joshua Quillen on top of bouncing electronic rhythms sampled from the sound of water filling a metal pail to glistening, swinging, gorgeous effect. In immediate counterpoint to the slapstick of Treasure, Water serves notice that this is an experimental record that is not afraid to be beautiful. An exercise in suitably prickly pointillism, Needles is made entirely out of the sounds of amplified cactus needles being fondled by the members of So Percussion, re-composed into a canon form by So's Jason Treuting, and then "chopped and screwed" by Matmos. As the record continues the stylistic pendulum between gritty and pretty continues to swing in wider arcs: the dirty, grinding groove of Cross and the near-industrial klangfarbenmelodie of Aluminum are complemented by So's melodic vibraphone playing and ear for minimalist melodic form on Shard.
Though space prohibits describing all of the songs, there are notable collaborations with some distinguished instrument-builders that extend the palette of objects and sounds available to these groups. Shard also features inventor/composer Dan Trueman (of PLorK, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra) manipulating ceramic sounds using his own Chuck software driven by customized Wii controllers; the outcome turns warm embers of scuttling and scraping into a kind of post-digital Harry Partch. The concluding Flame is built around samples of noted inventor/artist (and Macarthur "genius grant" recipient) Walter Kitundu's "phono-harp"; melancholic acoustic guitar and the harpsichord-like figures of the phono-harp are joined by cascades of glockenspiel and vibraphone, and their rippling patterns climb to a stomping, clattering techno/noise climax. The song's movement from beauty to noise models the arc of the album it concludes.
The record had a complex gestation period: at the invitation of Brett Allen, the members of Matmos and So Percussion went to the SnowGhost Studios in Whitefish, Montana-- the Treasure State which gives the album its title-- and collaboratively generated the bulk of the songs. San Francisco plunderphonicist Wobbly then chopped and edited the results on several tracks, and finally, with frequent interventions from Matmos' M. C. Schmidt, "fifth" So Percussion member and producer Lawson White overdubbed extra elements, processed, and mixed the results. The payoff of this nomadic pilgrimage is a diverse yet unified musical experience. From the desert hallucinations of Needles to the Hawaiian exotica kitsch of Treasure to the murky jazz noir of Swamp, it's a deeply American album in which musical idioms and landscapes keep arising and dissolving into each other. Call it instrumental pop music, call it 21st century electro-classical, call it a great new record.