Jandek is an interesting proposition. Interstellar Discussion makes for a good barometer to gauge why it is anyone listens to Jandek albums. Side one very much sounds like a bunch of young people with minimal musical instrument proficiency banging away in a rehearsal space with a tape recorder running. The harmonica parts seem almost overdubbed. While the performances are, by most standards, inept, the guitar does display hints of a very deliberate and unusual sensibility. Side two is acoustic stuff, like other early Jandek releases but seemingly trying more than usual to be melodic — and possibly failing at that effort. So, there is something in here, weird outsider art potential, but this does sound like rehearsals on tape. Actually, this listener subscribes to the theory that this recording is archival in nature and predates earlier Jandek/Units releases. Some listeners may out of fascination just find a way to like this in spite of its objective qualities. But, really, this is not as intriguing as other Jandek albums, in spite of its potential. Given a more careful listen, it’s noticeably less proficient than other efforts. If this is your favorite Jandek, you’re probably more interested in the myth and mystery than the actual music, or just see it as an affirmation of “be yourself” new ageism.
The main thing about Jandek is that the man behind it, Sterling Smith, has managed to come up with some pretty varied music through the years. Here he enlists the help of some excellent avant-garde players for a live show recorded October 16, 2005 in Glasgow. The first track, “The Grassy Knoll,” is performed with the great Loren Connors, with Mr. Smith on harmonica and also doing spoken word and a little singing. The sort of ambient guitar playing from Connors matched with the poetic recitations strongly recalls Patti Smith and Kevin Shields‘ The Coral Sea, part of which was recorded just months before this (was Mr. Smith in attendance?). But Unlike Patti Smith’s more dynamic recitations, Mr. Smith is more dark and monotone, suggesting influence from John Cale‘s “The Jeweller” (Slow Dazzle) or an assortment of Current 93 recordings. The lyrics reflect something of a consistent theme in Jandek recordings, that of seeking escape from something like a professional office-type day job — for a similar scenario, see the interview with Runhild Gammelsæter in the October 2008 issue of The Wire magazine, or even read about the life of composer/insurance executive Charles Ives. It might be summed up in a line from the Godard movie Film Socialisme: “No more doing evil, it’s vacation time.” The second track, “Tribal Ether,” is even better. Mr. Smith is on….drums! Alan Licht is on electric guitar and Heather Leigh Murray is on lap steel guitar and some vocals. The guitar cooks and the drums, well, they strangely enough work. But with Jandek, strange is the new normal.
No one probably expected Jandek to release an a cappella album. But then again no one expected Jandek to still exist by the year 2000, still anonymously selling albums out of a post office box. All signs point to a lot of this being recorded on a dictaphone. “I Need Your Life” adds to the intrigue with some rhythmic embellishment made possible by cutting out the sound on the recording periodically — a counterpart to Steve Reich‘s legendary “Come Out” perhaps. “It’s Your House” references the debut of The Units (a/k/a Jandek) with repeated intonations of “I’m ready for the house.” The vocals at times use little affected gimmicks that do liven this up quite a bit. If you expect this to be a tedious affair, think again. It’s anything but that. Of course, this assumes that the listener is grounded in the nature of what Jandek so often does with atonal blues. Basically, Jandek achieves here just with voice what was achieved on the early quintessentially Jandek-ian acoustic guitar albums.
So, I want to say that Jandek is the antidote to any ill-conceived notion (sometimes espoused by me) that all the final frontiers of music were crossed in the 1960s. But, it gets better than that suggests, so read on. Jandek really perfected meta-music. This collection of tuneless warbling, credited to “The Units,” seems to show a profound disregard for anything that would appeal to the listener. This sounds like music recorded in the basement of a very, very empty house, one with an imposing and almost oppressive sense of isolation. And there is this man, of some sort, playing music there, for his own purposes, whatever those are. And yet, here you are, listening to it. This was recorded, released! So why would you, me, anyone…why would we listen to it? As the doubters say, are we a pretentious lot, listening to it to be contrarians, or something like that? I think not. The key to this, if there is one, is that it’s just brutally honest expression. It’s naked, daring, bold expression of a type rarely put forth into the public, for the cruel human social structure to critique, attack, put down, or — even if it was a long shot — love and admire. Philosopher Paul Feyerabend suggested that the only universal methodological rule for the progress of science was epistemological anarchism, that, in essence, nothing is sacred or true and everything is permitted. Has Jandek proved that for music, and all arts too? William S. Burroughs said that the function of art is is to remind us of what we know, and what we don’t know that we know. And so, with Jandek, the reductionist removal of any clear reliance on structure or accepted method has, paradoxically — and awesomely, I may add editorially — exposed some kind of hidden potential for human connection through the sharing of experience, or shared experience if you prefer. Wasn’t that kind of always something we knew? And if Ready for the House was insufficient to establish any of this, Corwood Industries has survived as an outlet for scores of these albums to be continuously kept in print. And long after this was achieved, and Jandek was established as a notably obscure purveyor of “outsider art”, bands emerge to perform this music live. Folks, this has started to get interesting…