Even in an insular music culture like that of New Orleans, where there is rarely any attention – nary even lip service – paid to industry conventions like album cycles, public relations pushes or award banquet back-patting, the “solo ambient album” as an objet d’art tends to escape the honest and centered attention of even the most attentive listener. With few exceptions, the simple act of stating that a particular artist has made an ambient record has an almost automatic consequence of marginalizing the work as something extraneous, or maybe even parallel to, but ultimately less important than that artist’s ordinary output. And whether by design or defect of progressive rock’s cult-maintaining mainstream alienation, in the context of modern indie rock most ambient artists are ostensibly satisfied with endlessly building upon their own unheard, un-vetted and un-critiqued recordings, as if ambience is a musical phenomenon that only exists to perpetuate its own existence. The best we the audience can hope to glean from such music is an understanding of the innerworkings of an artist’s personality because, though released for consumption by the general public, it is music ultimately made for the musician’s piece of mind, not ours.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to pay attention, in the off-chance that you’ll hear something greater than a collection of basement-esque, masturbatory noise exercises. Chris Rehm – known to most as one half of Houston-by-way-of-New Orleans noise pop duo Caddywhompus, is no stranger to the ambient compulsion. Hailing from a Clutch City community nationally revered for its experimental noise culture and now living and playing among a group of New Orleans musicians in Chinquapin Records who spend nearly as much time speed-releasing minimalist electronica as they do crafting perfectly gestated indie rock, he can routinely be heard eschewing his guitar in favor of pedals and knobs.
In truth though, Rehm’s solo recorded output has been spottier lately than in the past, the result of both Caddywhompus’ manic creative tear and a mishap that left volumes of unreleased tracks stolen from his tour van last Summer. Aside from split cassingle with Native America and Ghostandthesong, as well as a single contribution to the Chinquapin/Skanky Possum Holiday Jingler in 2011, his recently released [i found an] Elephant Ring [and gave it to you] is the only true taste of a Sean Heart-less Chris Rehm anyone has heard since early 2011’s Worries, etc. (Okay, holistically his output isn’t that spotty; but compare it to that of contemporary Tyler Scurlock and holy shit pick it up dude.)
As tends to be the case, Elephant Ring is the result of a relatively unfocused culling of tracks that span almost the entire length of Rehm’s New Orleans tenure. What’s surprising, though, is how unfocused the record doesn’t sound. Quite the opposite: as far as bedroom “fuckaround” releases go, it’s arguably more flowing and concise than anything we’ll hear all year, a deceptively gift-wrapped offering that shrouds – while not totally obscuring – the talent for melody and disarming sentiment that makes Rehm one of the most beloved figures in the HOU-NO corridor.
After a pleasant and not altogether unforgettable primer of noise collage and diagetic melody, the album reveals its personality of ripe, affected acoustic numbers with “They All Are”. Meanwhile, on “I Can’t Feel Anything but You Anymore”, a parallax of dueling acoustic guitars that sway in and out of rhythmic unison, Rehm sings an echoed, doubled riff vaguely reminiscent of Bowie’s “Five Years”. Numbers like these, among a record of otherwise traditional noise and ambience, are what remain with the listener long after the record has come to its blistering, otherworldly conclusion with frequency-shattering single “Coming Up Roses”.
Perhaps it’s the presence of bleeding melody seeping from almost every crevice of Elephant Ring that will hold the attention not just of musical aficionados and fellow ambient musicians but of the listening public as a whole. Though sonic meandering tends to be a breeding ground of new ideas and creative techniques, Rehm doesn’t meander here; and if there lacks, in Elephant Ring, any game-changing or wheel-inventing influence, it is more than balanced by a focus of musical identity and the quality of material on display. In short, this record isn’t a traditional fuckaround release in any sense of the phrase, rather a standalone offering devoid of sophistication but masterfully intelligent and accessible. It might not be considered the most groundbreaking ambient record of 2012, but [i found an] Elephant Ring [and gave it to you] is certainly the most rewarding so far.