Dntel – The Seas Trees See

Aimlessness after all

Dntel and me, that’s a slightly bumpy ride. Not that it would be of special interest to Jimmy Tamborello, of course – unless this were true for a non-negligible amount of other people. Maybe. Because ever since he started making music, Mr. Tamborello has done whatever he pleased to do, taking his time with his releases (which some folks label as being slow), selecting tracks for his album as he pleases (which some folks label as being incoherent).

The first time Dntel entered my collection was back in 2001 when I picked up a white label 12″ of “Anywhere Anyone”. Loved the song immediately and still love it today. And of course I picked up the super famous “(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan” (still not sure if I actually like the Safety Scissors remix even better than the one supplied by Superpitcher).

After that he might have been a little bit too slow for me to follow the trail, or I might have been too busy following other artists’ trails. But when “Aimlessness” came out in 2012 I was intrigued again, bought the album, put it on the turntable, sat down, listened – and then these strange little question marks started to pop up above my head. I couldn’t figure out whether I had missed something during the years in between or whether that album was a little too true to its title, and maybe it was a mix of the two, but it still keeps a certain distance to me.

I do like the title, though, for its counter-intuitive position. Aimlessness. It describes something that we would instinctively label as negative, being the purpose-driven professionals of the 21st century that we are. How can anything not be aimed at something, not have a clear reason or purpose? Even the more or less aimless pursuit of meditation has been (re)purposed, working hard on working less hard, putting mindfulness on the list of desired achievements.

Aimlessness (not ignorance) is bliss, we should think, and maybe the problem with “Aimlessness” wasn’t necessarily aimlessness, it was arbitrariness. And that might just lead to wrong perceptions when approaching “The Seas Trees See” as Jimmy Tamborello seemingly hasn’t turned into a fan of the concept album.

Or has he? It’s a tricky question. Lots of what we hear on “The Seas Trees See” seems unfinished, sketchy, feels like something that was created to remind the composer about an idea to work on later. I have listened to the album half a dozen times now and I find it curious that just very few songs remain in my memory – and while this usually is one of the worst things you can say about an album, in this case it really isn’t a negative thing at all.

On his Bandcamp profile, Tamborello says something that sheds a light on this effect: “I thought a lot about making an album that you would find in a thrift store, something like a mysterious collection of sketches that leaves a lot unanswered. It doesn’t beg for attention or have any big moments.” I can almost picture him sitting in front of a nice cup of coffee, reading some reviews of his album pointing out that the tracks on this album seem unfinished, shaking his head and thinking they didn’t get it.

It’s really simple. Some people like to run, some prefer to march. Others love to go hiking or even do nothing more than just jumping up and down. Tamborello likes to amble. Stroll this way and that, try a path here and a path there, not feeling much of a need to conquer the trail, to complete it, be the fastest to travel it or attach any other additional dimension of purpose to the simple act of ambling. For someone that is able to enjoy the beauty of simply being in the moment this is a wonderful album.

It’s almost a paradox that the album opens with the one piece of music that doesn’t disappear from memory once it’s heard. “The Lilac and the Apple” is an acapella by Kate Wolf, recorded in 1977. Tamborello treats her voice with some vocoder effects and then pairs this with the original voice of the singer creating an impression of her singing directly from a different dimension of time and space. Knowing that Wolf only reached the age of 44 losing a long battle with leukemia the effect is even more haunting and tragic – but in a beautiful way. And it needs to be added that when Tamborello says that the songs on this album don’t beg for attention, this is even true for this one.

From this song forward it’s a listening experience that is both rewarding and effortless. As much as it may leave the seeker of messages and big moments empty handed, the album is among the very few that will probably allow close to infinite revisits without ever losing much of its appeal. You listen to the musical sketches, the intricate little excursions, float through their ambiences and find yourself looking at something and nothing at the same time. That’s the beauty of sketches – they don’t tell you what to see.

I remember writing about Four Tet’s “Rounds” album almost two decades ago, describing all the fantastic things that the album made me see, and how I loved the playfulness of it. In a way, “The Seas Trees See” has a similar effect – with the main difference being that Tamborello does this really strange trick of not letting specific visions rise. Once more: this could be a devastating thing to say about an album, and it’s anything but that.

It is what it is. Aimlessness, finally. In eleven different variations. “Whimsy” is just that, twittering and swarming like merry bunch of insects or the tiniest of spacecrafts, with no particular destination, as if they somehow found out how their flight can produce sound, and then just flying here and there to enjoy playing around with the effect and laughing happily.

“The Man On The Mountain” features Pierre Louis Nguyen reciting one of his poems over a softly distorted guitar theme that simply slows down and drifts off towards the end of the song, not even remotely trying to add more meaning to what was recited, not going for any big moments. The comfort that may be found in “Fall In Love” is offset by sparse instrumentation and a layer of vocoder shyness that leaves the message for those who seek it.

What some people will appreciate about this album is the calm and modest friendliness it surrounds us with, like a super nice person you didn’t know but somehow turned the evening into a memorable one without even trying. There’s even a little bit of self-irony to be found when Tamborello names one of his tracks “Yoga App” – the one track that is slightly bent out of shape, warped and wobbled, even hacked occasionally. Good thing we are quickly brought back to our aimless state of bliss on “After All” – my secret little highlight on this album, nudging really close to what I loved about Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Async”.

This album may not be a case of love at first sight. It’s not flashy or attention-grabbing, it doesn’t try to catch you or seduce you, it simply is what it is. Always inviting you to revisit and keep discovering, as modest as it is, in essence, exquisite.

Release for review:

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