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Pan•American - White Bird Release

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Artist: Pan•American

Album: White Bird Release

Label: Kranky

Review date: Jan. 30, 2009

Mark Nelson continues his exploration of minimalism through dub-tinged drones on his latest full-length under the Pan•American alias, White Bird Release. Nelson has a long history with minimalist electronic music: The very first release for Kranky Records in 1993 was by Nelson’s former group, Labradford. The idiosyncratic trio was incorporating analog synthesizers and exploring electronica at a time when the American indie-rock underground was obsessed with distorted discord. After three albums in four years, Nelson moved to Chicago in 1997 to pursue a solo career while Labradford gradually slowed (and eventually stopped) recording.

In a dozen years, the basic formula for a Pan•American release has not changed dramatically. The biggest alteration in Nelson’s latest work comes from a greater emphasis on organic sounds, perhaps due to songwriting assistance and drum and vibraphone work from Steven Hess. Guitars take center stage over dub or glitch elements, which in the past might’ve made their presence better felt. On opener “There Can Be No Thought of Finishing,” the quiet tremolo and whispered vocals give way to a dominant white-noise. This six-string texturing is a common motif throughout the album, weaving together largely ambient tracks like “Is a Problem to Occupy Generations” and “There is Always the Thrill of Just Beginning” for a sound not unlike Pan•American’s closest contemporaries, Belong.

The exceptions to these My Bloody Valentine-influenced drone dazers are what make White Bird Release (and, by extension, Pan•American itself) as interesting as it is. “Both Literally and Figuratively” is an early exception, Nelson withholding noisier impulses for an even more restrained take than usual. Later, “How Much Progress One Makes” provides one of the highlights of the album through its return to what Pan•American made its name on: a combination of dub, downtempo and shoegazer minimalism. “In a Letter to H.G. Wells, 1932” also follows this blueprint for double the length, a pleasant closer to an album rich in sonic subtleties.

    “There can be no thought of finishing, for ‘aiming at the stars’ – both figuratively and literally – is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.”

The song titles make up this 1926 Robert Goddard quotation. The American scientist was speaking in the context of space and rocketry, but he may just as well have been speaking about Pan•American. No matter what tweak to the overall aesthetic Nelson may make, Pan•American’s music is as interesting as ever, precisely because there is no end in sight. For him as for the listener, realization is just a continuation, refinement just another beginning.

By Patrick Masterson

Other Reviews of Pan•American

The River Made No Sound

Quiet City

For Waiting, For Chasing

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