Unlearn: Places
noise | order

It's both easy and tempting to automatically brand an album of instrumentals created using guitars, drums, and keyboards as post-rock—perhaps one reason why Unlearn chose the name that it did—but the fifty-minute Places suggests one would do well to avoid making such lazy over-generalizations. Certainly James Key, Jason Kopec, and Greg Ferguson offer a goodly share of post-rock moments during the album's ten tracks but they also do much else besides. Regardless of genre, the Seattle trio brings a sense of control and elegance to its material, whether it be shoegaze, melancholic balladry, or oceanic ambient soundscaping, and the compositions are just as often beatless as beat-driven. A sonic richness is evident too, as Unlearn sprinkles its tracks with field recordings (crowd noises, voices), glockenspiel, electronics, acoustic and electric guitars, electric piano, synthesizers, and even what sounds like a mellotron (in “Ellenwood Drive”).

The journey begins with a melancholic, Fender Rhodes-dominated waltz (“Lost And Found”) and gradually makes its way through slow-burning shoegaze (“L'inondation”), pretty folktronica (“Still Life With Actress,” “At Home”), paradisiacal sound paintings (“Ellenwood Drive”), and even something tangentially reminiscent of the dark jazz-boogie of In A Silent Way (“Emerald City”). The album's climax arrives in “Whiteout,” a sweeping waltz whose chiming patterns of electronic keyboards and tom-toms explode into grand flourishes. Coming as it does after that setting's tumultuous heat, one expects “Mechanisms” to be a subdued come-down and it generally is, though even it too boasts an intense central episode. The “Northern Hemispheres” closes the circle by reprising the opening track's 3/4 time and takes Places out on the slow-motion crest of a shoegaze wave. Certainly one of the album's peaks is the ambient meditation “Ocean Of/Oceans,” which is, yes, just as oceanic as its title suggests—a term, in fact, one could easily extend to the album as whole.

February 2009