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White Out w/ Jim O'Rourke and William Winant - China Is Near

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Artist: White Out w/ Jim O'Rourke and William Winant

Album: China Is Near

Label: ATP

Review date: Jul. 19, 2005

Lin Culertson and Tom Surgal came together as the duo White Out 10 years ago, and in that time have sired a couple of pretty great records for Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label. Parallel to their recordings, the two have always left open-ended invitations on the table for any like-minded collaborators, thus giving them opportunities to work with folks like Jim O'Rourke (with whom they recorded their second album Drunken Little Mass), Nels Cline and Mike Watt, to name but three. White Out isn't exactly the easiest batch of improvisers to peg, but if you need a reference point try NNCK or Jackie-O Motherfucker. Not that those two share many aesthetic qualities per se, but rather some basic ideological tenets - cracked experimentation, widely varying instruments (analog synths and autoharps, anyone?), and a steadily expanding palette that seems to broaden substantially with each release.

China Is Near is the group's third full-length release, and their first for the All Tomorrow's Parties label. This time out, Culbertson and Surgal are supported by the aforementioned O'Rourke and noted avant percussionist William Winant. Throughout the course of the album's six tracks, the quartet takes the listener on a dizzying ride through a variety of moods, textures and instrumental configurations without ever seeming to repeat themselves.

White Out, it would seem, has quite a deep bag of tricks from which to pull their beguiling instrumentals. "Ghost Mirror Image" begins the album with sounds that wouldn't seem out of place in a science fiction movie. Winant's percussion forms a supple bed over which the remaining trio conducts deep space ray gun battles amidst ships jockeying for position in the cosmos - think Wendy Carlos Williams scoring outtakes from the original Star Wars with some help from a light-handed Han Bennik and you have a pretty decent idea of what's going on here. That is, of course, until all the sounds on display fold back on themselves in a singularity and turn into a cacophonous black hole.

"Mutinous," by contrast, feels positively muted. Winant's percussion here is suitably low-key, and yet always maintains that threat of breaking loose into a shower of hits. Meanwhile, Culbertson, Surgal and O'Rourke seem to be conducting an orchestra made solely of appliance hums as a faint autoharp and robotic birdsong fight for space. Here the quartet shows off their knack for the crescendo, but not in any lame, formulaic rockist sort of way. Rather, they build momentum intuitively without so much as a hint as to where they may be headed.

"Lost in Grey" is one of the more spacious tracks contained herein. The sounds come in waves, with bursts of percussive clatter working in harmony (as in spiritual) with the sweeping drones. "Empty Centre" offers the flip of that coin, leaving an undulating throb to underpin the explosions, coming off like fireworks seen from a distance. Although the trio of Culberston, Surgal and O'Rourke proved themselves capably with Drunken Little Mass, it's Winant who earns the highest marks in this collaboration. Perhaps it has something to do with the former three's ability to obscure their instrumentation and mesh effortlessly with one another, but even still, the percussionist's scope of expression adds layers of depth, slight rhythmic nuance, and sheer cymbalic oddity that really elevates the session.

China Is Near, then - perhaps a treatise on the impending dominance of the Asian country in the future (or current) world market? Sure, I suppose American economists and stockholders could view the ominous tones and textures here as such a thesis. But then again, I doubt White Out and their friends would ever be so translucent in their motives. No, this record is something much deeper than that. "Noise" as a genre is a bit too reductive and “improv” too paradoxically pedantic to describe what's truly going on here, but aficionados of either of those scenes will find more than enough to love.

By Michael Crumsho

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