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Artist: Jatoma

Album: Jatoma

Label: Kompakt

Review date: Nov. 9, 2010


Jatoma - "Little Houseboat" (Jatoma)


Writing about electronic music is difficult because it requires you to be both hyperspecific — down to the drum machine or synth, the record label or nightclub — and that you move away from that specificity in order to allow your subject an identity that’s not overdetermined by technology or genealogy. Plus, unlike more culturally embedded forms such as blues or jazz, electronic music often is short on cues — the stories that help us understand what we’re listening to, that tell us where the meaning lies, that feel less like narratives and more like matrices or hypertexts. Choose your own adventure and so forth. There’s a dizzying profusion of paths from the zero-degree of consumer electronics, a 440 Hz sine wave, to a new group like Kompakt’s Jatoma. This comes as a relief. The music on the trio’s self-titled debut LP for the Cologne label is hard enough to pin down without the whole sordid business of identity and a PR one-sheet getting in the way.

Jatoma the record does not sound the same way twice. There is a lot of detail, to be sure, but the album’s changeability is the result of canny construction, not being overstuffed, almost suggesting that some kind of Oulipian restrictions are in place. Jatoma (specifically Tomas Barfod, Mads Kolding and Jacob Littauer) plays cat and mouse with certain techno conventions, walking a fine line between recognizable forms and sounds that don’t quite scan as musical. The production logic fights against quantization, the production-software button that snaps all MIDI notes to a particular metrical grid. Much of the drama here comes from phrases that barely fit into the songs, parts that threaten to topple the whole Jenga tower over.

Despite the ways Jatoma calls attention to its own construction, the album is not too sophisticated to have the same level of emotional accessibility as, say, Four Tet or The Field. The pleasant central motif of the first track, “Little Houseboat,” states this clearly at the outset, before an onslaught of sounds divides the focus. Jatoma’s productions are filled with options. There seems to be a stable core to every track around which sonic detritus orbits; what you choose to pay attention to among these gambolling sounds can effectively change the experience of the song — but then again, the core of the song often morphs significantly before the runtime is out. Which means that this album can be both idyllic and sinister. It makes and re-makes itself in realtime.

This is very true of a certain kind of electronic music. I bought Autechre’s Tri Repetae++ seven years ago simply because it had the best reviews. It wasn’t until two weeks ago, prompted by rainy weather, I finally heard what was essential and compelling about it. The best Autechre tracks are half dirty, harsh industrial sounds and half recognizably musical techno: a sketch of a melody or some warm pads, for example. As a listener you’re called upon to make sense of the “non-musical” sounds in terms of the musical ones while filling in the built-in blanks in the melody or ambience. The appeal has more to do with internal, unresolved tension than with forward momentum.

Fourteen years later, it makes sense that Jatoma’s take on this concept would involve more than two simultaneous ideas. This might give the reader the idea that Jatoma is scattered, but it’s not. It’s frequently an overwhelming experience because there is so much to take interest in here, but it’s still a carefully engineered one — packed with some of the more satisfying jams of the year. It is itself a combination of specificity and anonymity, a state of flux with very few right angles.

By Brandon Bussolini

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