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United Waters - Your First Ever River

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Artist: United Waters

Album: Your First Ever River

Label: Arbitrary Signs

Review date: Apr. 20, 2011

As part of Mouthus, Brian Sullivan makes music that is too noisy and dense to be rock, too nimble and pulse-oriented to be noise, too primitive to get dubbed electro-acoustic or experimental. Similarly, it’s impossible to grip the seven pieces on Sullivan’s first solo LP under his United Waters moniker as anything concrete: Are they songs that spiralled out into jams, or jams that coalesced into songs?

It’s a tension he seems to relish, and it’s there from the first drop of the needle. Side A is dominated by the 11-minute suite, “My Geology I–IV,” and the title and length alone should clue you in to the polarities Sullivan is moving between. It’s intimate but maps out larger, unseen forces, a play of the personal and the primordial.

Likewise, his arrangements throughout the album set opposing forces against each other. The opening section of “My Geology” has a clean acoustic guitar backing a trembling, distorted voice, like a slightly more wasted version of Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man.” “Platetectonics” continues this acoustic/electric binary, with an acoustic guitar keeping the pulse for Sullivan’s massed vocals while a drum loop and back-masked cymbal strike clatter in the background, seemingly out of time, as if they were meant for some other song but leaked into the mix.

This tape-saturated, murky fidelity is on every track here, but Sullivan uses its masking properties with purpose. By subtly disguising his instrumental sources and rearranging them in the stereo field, he gives them new life and frees up our associations for the bigger effect. Both versions of “Spires” feature a muted drum track that sounds like it was recorded in a separate room. On “Statuary.” a slide guitar emerges midway through, bringing light to the minor gloom of the track’s first half.

Like a Pollock painting, your first impression of all this murk and the discordant elements is of a sloppy mess, but closer inspection reveals a tangled, intuitive intelligence at work. Order emerges not by breaking it down into its constituent parts, but when you step back and appreciate it with a wide-screen gaze. Your First Ever River is an album you could tuck into the tradition of cloistered, lysergic bedroom missives running from Skip Spence and Syd Barrett through to Twenty Six and Six Organs of Admittance, but it could just as easily get cast as something outside of that lineage. Not truly Outsider, but at least sui generis, made without a thought of really belonging anywhere or to anything.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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