Inexpensive tapes, free downloads and a DIY ethic set Portland, Oregon’s Oligopolist Records apart from the pack. Now in their 5th year of existence, the little label that could is continuing to make an impact in the industry. The latest tapes from Live Slower, drowse and WJMC are excellent examples of a diverse and growing roster.
Live Slower‘s EP From Under the Floorboards is described as “reflecting on death in the family, and the pressing need to appreciate our surroundings.” It’s a soft, drone-inflected set with sparse, drenched vocals: a choice that honors the stunned aftermath of a loss. Everything seems to be floating, in stasis, on pause. Key track “Distance” may only be 1:40, but its power lies in the instrumental drift; the vinyl crackle of “Reflection” continues the vibe. What is there to do when a vacuum opens in one’s life? Fill it with music, the artist seems to say. Make something where there seems to be nothing, to remind one of the something that once was there and now is elsewhere: as the artist writes, only physically absent. The echoes may fade, but like a meaningful life, they are not forgotten.
drowse‘s first EP on Oligopolist, 2013’s songs to sleep on, made a soft impact, hiding its harder edges. But Kyle Bates’ first full album, soon asleep, brings the menace to the fore. Simon Scott and Max Richter are both set to release sleep-themed albums this fall, but it’s a safe bet to say that neither begins with the sound of wolves. Shoegaze shadings are apparent in “melt”, as well as warped-tape timbres, connecting the tape to the others in this review. The pill bottles on the cover imply that there is something not quite right about this type of sleep: that the protagonist either suffers from insomnia or is trying to escape an antagonistic force. When the music is allowed to loop and bend, the power begins to bleed through the Portland woods; “(you)” drops the words and concentrates on the atmosphere, while the gurgling opening of “awake” implies a continuing struggle. “returning” is a bit more hopeful, sounding like a bird fluttering its wings after a shower. A 40-page memoir is included for those who want to delve deeper into the mystery of drowse.
After tapes concentrating on sleep and death, we need something lighter to lift our spirits. WJMC‘s (mostly) instrumental hip-hop makes the proper prescription. Beginning with the wobbly “faketeeth,” this Ontario artist brings the beats: 15 tracks, none reaching the three-minute mark. And that’s perfectly acceptable, as it keeps the momentum moving. It’s possible that the tape itself was rescued from the bottom of Lake Ontario, as it possesses a wrung-out timbre: tapes stretched in the sun to dry then spooled back in. The light vocal samples threaded throughout the production seem to have been extracted from a broken transistor radio. “going to have a guess” uses light home construction as percussion; “it’s not so bad” seems to use the sound of a cassette shell, a sweet pre-cycling. As the waterlogged windings, stumbling samples and slow beats accumulate, they offer a sense of musical history as similarly warped, yet avidly loved: the sounds of prior generations respected yet reconstituted. Only the overt dialogue of “secret letter” breaks the mood, but it’s hard to fault on a tape that bears that very name.