Field recordings are often described as calming, unique, and valuable, but seldom as fun. Hear Cape Cod is fun. Steve Wilkes’ lovingly curated project takes the genre into the mainstream without a single whiff of compromise. It’s the sort of souvenir that any Cape Cod visitor would be blessed to acquire, but it has an impact far beyond its surroundings.
The first volume contains two discs, one of field recordings and another of remixes. Readers of this site will be pleasantly surprised to see some very familiar names, including Goldmund, Marcus Fischer, Loscil, Simon Scott, and Taylor Deupree (who also mastered both volumes). An instant respect is awarded due to these associations, even before the cellophane has been removed. Volume Two features the vocal talents of Ginny Fordham and is clearly the “crossover” disc, but is still of interest due to the integration of local sound sources.
Volume One, Disc One: Sound Signals
This is the go-to disc, with 39 tracks mixed into a single soundscape, a bold choice that pays off. Wilkes could have separated the tracks, but the stop-and-start nature of such a work might seem off-putting. This way he can say, “This is what Cape Cod sounds like”, and be comprehensive in a way that is both sonically and metaphorically accurate. Sounds bleed into each other in life; when we visit the sea, we don’t just hear the sea, we hear the people at the sea. In like manner, the appeal of this set is its specificity ~ sounds unique to the area include not only the ocean, but the landmarks, their occupants, and their visitors. The human element never overwhelms, but supplements the natural soundscape, lending it a sense of joyfulness and small-town nostalgia.
Those who purchase the disc will be faced with an immediate choice: to listen or to visit the site to find the track listing. This is the only complaint most purchasers will have, especially when they see that the two inside pages (behind the CD casings) are blank. But listening without knowing offers a sense of mystery and discovery. One finds that one is guessing at some of the sources, hoping to grade one’s self later. Is the old man sending morse code? (“I’ll make a little message with your name on it, Steve, okay?”) Are the footsteps ascending lighthouse stairs? Are those harbor seals? What’s an Indian dance doing in the middle? Unlike many field recording works, this one refuses to stay in the background. Those who ignore it will be startled by the foghorn – I won’t reveal where.
Listeners will each have their own favorite sounds, influenced by personal taste and experience. Mine are the Flying Horses carousel (Track 6), the out-of-breath children in the Pilgrim Monument stairwell (7), the wedding bagpiper (9), Oyster Fest and Garden chimes plus car alarm (10-12), bar code scanner (20), First Night Chatham Noise Parade (24), and the completely unnecessary but subsequently amusing introduction of Track 30: “Thursday, June 16, 2011: here’s some surf.”
Volume One, Disc Two: Signals Remixed
The remixers have their favorite sounds as well. Crickets and chimes are popular choices, but the most effective pieces integrate the more distinctive clips. Loscil’s cut begins with a clock (not on the original disc) and stutters the chimes as additional percussion. Neara Russell, perhaps the least-known artist on the disc, contributes one of the best mixes, making good use of the aforementioned grocery scanner as well as a modulated whistle that now sounds like a duduk. Her sparse, wordless vocals recall those of Lisa Gerrard, creating a world music vibe. FourColor breaks the ambient spell with harsh buzzes, eventually followed by the sounds of a clam bar kitchen. The entire disc comes across as an alterna-cape, the Cool Cod known only to a few.
Volume Two: Upstream (Fordham Wilkes)
While the vocal Volume Two will be of less interest to readers of this site, it will likely be the more popular of the discs due to its approachable nature. While the lyrics at times border on the twee (a song directed at herring), the integration of field recordings preserves its edge. The finest moments arrive in “GP Road Resonator” (a surprising hand-held tape introduction, as rare in such a recording as orange sea glass on the shore), the opening and closing moments of “Dive Down” (harbor seals used as instruments and a brief interview segment) and all of “Fog”, which gives equal time to music, vocals and field recordings and contains the album’s most resonant lyrics. The construction of this piece recalls This Mortal Coil, making it stand out like an East Coast lazuli bunting.
The Hear Cape Cod project is ongoing, and site visitors can suggest their own sound preservation locations. The first two volumes are remarkable not only for their quality, but for their breadth: from field recording to instrumental remix to song. The wider appeal of this project is good for the entire genre, and we’re lucky to have it; for Wilkes, this has been three years well spent. (Richard Allen)