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The Franciscan Hobbies - Masks & Meanings

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Artist: The Franciscan Hobbies

Album: Masks & Meanings

Label: Soft Abuse

Review date: Jan. 12, 2004

As a truant reviewer I’d prefer not to admit it, but the Franciscan Hobbies are at least a release ahead of Masks and Meanings. Their latest (and I suppose there could be more) is At The World’s End, a CD-R on PseudoArcana. In my defense I’ll mention that the Hobbies are a part of the Jewelled Antler collective, that loose conglomerate of left coast musicians whose release schedule isn’t nearly as relaxed as their pastoral, quiescent music might imply. Instead the collective – headed by Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse – churn out releases at a dizzying pace and under a slew of guises. It’s an approach that their ranging and relentlessly inclusive attention to sound befits, however. The Franciscan Hobbies (like Thuja, Blithe Sons, Of, The Birdtree, and many more) isolate the shifting whims of Nature and underline them with their bows and strings and broken things. Their approach is similar to clapping chalkboard erasers in front of a film projector and letting the dust unveil the existent beam of light. Efforts like The Blithe Sons’ We Walk the Young Earth, with its warm, ringing drones, feel infused with the splendor of a sunny morning. The Hobbies’ habitat is one of low-level clouds and obscuring mists, abundant in moss and saturated with warm rain.

The Hobbies are comprised of both Jewelled Antler heads, Chasse and Donaldson, as well as Rob Reger (of Thuja), Kerry McLaughlin and Greg Bianchini (of The Muons), Christine Boepple and Buffy Vice Sick. The group’s name recalls the hobbyhorse of Dada – and the strange assemblages in the liner notes recall Dada as it began its eerie bleed into Surrealism – which isn’t far from the general mood of their music. Stormier and more anarchic than other Jewelled Antler groupings, The Hobbies’ largely avoid the Wordsworthian rapture of Blithe Sons in favor of a sinisterly beautiful tangle of sounds. Masks and Meanings begins in tight focus – with a fevered spiral of eastern-sounding string picking – and is slowly broadened by the gentle clanging and wheezing of instruments. The Hobbies often stop short of executing whole notes, content instead to rattle cryptic, preliminary sounds out of toy pianos, bouzouki, and broken guitar bodies. Each player sculpts a different nuance of the space – one is acutely aware of a banjo’s hollowed body, chimes muffled against some obstruction – and from these signposts an imagined environment begins to shape itself.

More than other Jewelled Antler releases, Masks and Meanings does have a tendency to come too far unraveled. Tracks like “Withered Spring” and “The Animal Performers” are muddled and frustrating; the former flirts with a full-on, synched-up jam that the players seem hell-bent on resisting before whimpering to a finish. The final three tracks are the real meat of the record. “Plough Drawn by Toads,” “Apprehension of Reality,” and “The Matchless Phenomenon” are 12-14 minute pieces that anchor themselves to a drone or repeated figure and spill-over at the edges with restless improvisation. Reminiscent of Pelt’s recent, all-acoustic Pearls From the River, they teem with beauty and mystery.

Initiates to the Jewelled Antler collective would probably benefit from soaking up the more accessible material from Blithe Sons and Thuja before heading into this tangled thicket of sounds, but there are some nice surprises waiting when you get here.

By Nathan Hogan

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