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Lorn - Ask the Dust

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Artist: Lorn

Album: Ask the Dust

Label: Ninja Tune

Review date: Jun. 26, 2012

With 2010’s debut album Nothing Else, Lorn made an immediate impact by taking the bleak invocations of Burial, 2562 and Distance — chroniclers of the deep — and imparting a sense of touch, a clear feeling that this was music made by human hands — this despite the simultaneous cold alienation of tracks like “Automaton” (not coincidentally one of the album’s most predictable cuts). As Dusted’s review notes, the album is outsider music, but with a core pulled from the soul.

Claiming that Nothing Else was too cold, Lorn signaled a transition by naming his new album after the 1939 novel by infamous literary outsider John Fante. That human side, again, factors heavily in the songs on Ask the Dust, but in different ways: more vocals, an overall claustrophobic feel, and a cinematic flavor that puts the listener in the action. Vocals appear sporadically throughout the album, sometimes as barely-audible murmurs, sometimes as guttural mutterings, and occasionally as full-on singing. The whispers and murmurings, even while not clear enough to be coherent, provide that sense of humanity, the hint that someone’s inside the songs, serving as a counterpoint to the sometimes-hard surfaces of these electronic pieces. The vocals also serve to make the last track, “Ghos st(s),” the most unusual: emanating from amidst a droning, buzzing wasteland, the singing is the spitting audio image of Mercury Rev circa Deserter’s Songs. The song’s an odd choice for album closer.

It’s tempting to try to pin down these songs in the context of Fante’s novel, but that’s undoubtedly taking too much for granted; the story of a broken-down Depression-era writer who gains little from love except the experience of observing deterioration and death, it traces its story from rundown Los Angeles to a barren desert conclusion. There is, certainly, a grit and ache to these songs that mirrors the novel’s impressionistic setting, and a bittersweet melancholy that fits perfectly. What’s best about both of these Ask the Dusts is the combined invocation of desolation and beauty, in one case by words and in this one by sounds. The rhythms here are dry and somehow brittle, the electronic tones touched just enough by dusty hiss and a not-quite-distorted density. Layers on layers, there’s plenty to peel back over repeated listens.

But it’s Lorn’s way with melody that takes this album forward. The slow grandeur of “The Gun” is remarkable for its gentle refrain, situated in reverb that places it just slightly in the distance; like a remote organ, it’s the sound of a porch light through gloom. Perhaps the best piece here, “Dead Dogs,” throws quickly-stumbling drums (it’s one of several pieces featuring live drums) down a hill, like someone who wants to stop but can’t. The groaning synths and layers of what might be vocals lend a gorgeous inevitability to the song, as foreboding strings and perfectly-positioned bells and tones demonstrate how a light touch with melody will make a song stay with you.

These songs seem made for visuals, but it would be best to let them evoke their own; it would be a pity to lose whatever images they conjure for you in favor of someone else’s. The layers of rhythm, voice and electronics here possess the ability to tell stories, just like the novel after which they’re named, and out of their conjurings emerge atmospheres and melodies that will remain in your head. Not to tie it too closely to Fante, but the quote from the novel is too apt to ignore: “Dust and fog of your lonely streets, I am no longer lonely.”

By Mason Jones

Other Reviews of Lorn

Nothing Else

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