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Adem - Takes

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Artist: Adem

Album: Takes

Label: Domino

Review date: Jun. 16, 2008

Listening to Adem Illhan’s 2004 solo debut, Homesongs, is an exercise in reflection, relaxation and earnest questioning. The British troubadour gracefully pairs the inventive rhythms of his work with the post-rock trio Fridge with warm acoustics, while his aching croon (somewhere between Richard Hawley and Caetano Veloso) explores universal concepts of friendship, regret and comfort. 2006’s Love and Other Planets further teases the divide between harmonic electronics and acoustics, exploring themes to make twenty-something nerds swoon: romance and outer space.

I was afraid that experiencing Adem’s music with a crowd would dilute its charm, but seeing him perform at Chicago’s Lake Shore Theater on a chilly September evening only enhanced his magnetism. The most telling aspect of the performance occurred during a moment of improvisation and reinterpretation. Illhan had purchased a set of toy bells during the day, and he was eager to explore their musical possibilities. Holding three bells in each hand, and borrowing lyrics from a children’s storybook he had also picked up thrifting, he composed a simple song on stage. It was imperfect but impressive, as the cutesy tale became yet another endearing tune in his hands. The act attests not only to Adem’s keen ear for melody and composition, but also his ability to coax charm from any song, no matter the content. This is why a covers record from the singer/songwriter is an alluring idea. Just what makes the swooner himself swoon? And will the interpretations of the music chosen reveal the shortcomings or the mastery of his compositional skills?

On Takes, Illhan’s initial idea was simply to record the cover songs he performed live in a similar stripped-down form. But as the record came to fruition, he not only set curatorial stipulations (including only music that was released during his most formative years, 1991-2001) but also re-imagined each song’s arrangement. As in his own compositions, Adem emphasizes the marriage of rhythm and melody by relying on instruments such as glockenspiel, vibraphone, wurlitzer, harmonium, and pinging hand percussion. Coupled with his fondness for ukulele, banjolele, acoustic guitar, and his own troubadour cadence, these covers become inarguably Adem’s own, consisting of the same autumnal moodiness of his albums.

Unsurprisingly, Illhan chooses mostly from musicians reminiscent of his own craft: clever and seductive songwriters (PJ Harvey, Lisa Germano and Björk), slowcore pioneers (Low and Bedhead), and some of indie-pop’s finest song-crafters (Yo La Tengo, The Breeders and Pinback). Given his involvement in Fridge, taking on Tortoise and Aphex Twin isn’t that much of a surprise, though translating them into this setting makes for intriguing results. Illhan also reimagines the energetic alternative rock of early 90s Smashing Pumpkins and Belgium’s dEUS with his own tempered tension––in other words, less feedback, more acoustic resonance.

While rearranging the interlocking melodic instrumentation of Pinback’s “Loro” from their eponymous debut seems like a natural fit for Illhan, re-imagining the post-punky “Oh My Lover” from PJ Harvey’s Dry is much more interesting. Illhan easily mimics Harvey’s emotional croon (and even adds a touch off sweetness), but instead of aping the muscular guitar riff, he utilizes a nervously twitching violin over a string bed to capture the tension. His take on Lisa Germano’s “Slide” similarly replaces the key instrumentation––in this case a resonating grand piano with an accordion. This trade drags the song out of its ghostly murk and into a much warmer and welcoming setting. Conversely, by scrapping the steady drum-kit beat of Yo La Tengo’s “Tears are in Your Eyes,” the song transforms from a countrified ballad into an austere confession that is almost uncomfortably revealing.

The reworking of two Aphex Twin songs from the Richard D James Album may be the most intriguing composition of all. Illhan sings the vocals (performed by kids in the original) of “To Cure a Weakling Child” over “Boy/Girl Song,” minus the stuttering jackhammer beats. By translating synthetic melodies and electronic blips to acoustic instrumentation, he creates a heavily textured, surprisingly moving indie-pop song out of what was one of drill’n’bass’s greatest achievements.

As critics, we often speak of clever musicianship and deft lyricism as keys to an impressive artist, but we sometimes forget that charm can also be an incredibly affecting element in music. Takes further demonstrates just how charming Illhan can be, no matter his source material. His sound may not be paving any new ground, and in fact can be rather redundant, but it’s imaginative and always well crafted. Takes is most worthwhile for Adem fans, but intriguing for anyone who enjoys a new perspective on old tunes.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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Love and Other Planets

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