In 2001, many musicians endeavored to take listeners a few steps closer into a universe in which the organic and the electronic, long considered polar opposites in popular music, could coexist in a symbiotic harmony that forsook neither innovation nor emotion. Steward's Bang! There Goes My Youth, a tribute to both cheesy 80s electro and C-86 jangle-pop, continued his previous album's dissection of a painful breakup. Hood's Cold House, in which spastic rapping and trebly glitches augmented the band's meandering folk-rock, conveyed the bleakness of the rural English landscape. The Mego label eased up on its characteristic abrasion by letting guitarists Christian Fennesz and Jim O'Rourke release Powerbook-driven tone poems. The most hyped album to come out of this trend in 2001, though, could be Dntel's sophomore release, Life Is Full of Possibilities.
Dntel, also known as Jimmy Tamborello, was once a member of the indie-rock band Strictly Ballroom, and is currently a member of the synth-pop trio Figurine. Neither of these groups could be considered extraordinary, which makes it all the more surprising that Possibilities is an often-brilliant hybrid of two genres that Tamborello, until now, was never more than average at. Every instrument and voice on this record is treated as something to be spliced up, rearranged, and distorted at will. Strictly Ballroom frontman Chris Gunst's vocals on opener "Umbrella" are often rendered unrecognizable in mid-sentence by Dntel's severe processing. "Anywhere Anyone," which casts vocalist Mia Doi Todd as a Sade for the IDM set, keeps the vocals and drum programming front and center, while shaving the treble off of the rest of the instrumentation, giving the illusion that the rest of the "band" is playing very loudly in some faraway closet. The guitar lines of "Why I'm So Unhappy" and "Last Songs" are chopped up into flurries of melody that I assume the source material only hinted at.
Another element that makes this album such a captivating headphone experience is Dntel's usage of found sound. The traffic noises atop the appropriately named ambient snooze of "Pillowcase" and the clanking wine glasses of "Fireworks" had me removing my headphones to make sure that what I was hearing was actually on the CD. Tamborello's choices in instrumentation are often as subversive as the sound effects; the accordions in "Suddenly Is Sooner Than You Think" and the orchestral swells of "Last Songs" appear out of nowhere, but transform the songs into completely different entities once they do.
Even though Dntel insists on running a Ginsu blade through every .wav file he encounters, the vocal-based songs retain their individual personalities,and remain quite catchy as well. Nowhere is this more evident than on "(This Is the Dream of) Evan and Ben," in which Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard's voice transforms the album's most irritating backdrop into a wistful pop song that stands tall next to his rock band's best work. The beginning of the song sounds like it's being transmitted through a short-wave radio (which is then run through a distortion pedal) until the rhythm section comes in. Synthesizer chords punctuate every hook, inching closer and closer to pure static until the songÕs end. Yet, Gibbard's refrain of "The telephone started ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing off" is what remains in my head for the next couple of days.
The instrumentals on Possibilities, though, don't fare as well; they function more as comedowns from the momentum that the vocal-based songs build up. They do contain quirks that reward repeated listening, from "Fireworks" hyperactive drum solo to the sustained chiming of the title track. However, when all is said and done, these merely above-average instrumentals can only remind me of how awesome the songs with vocals are, and how much I wish Dntel would construct a full album of this kind of material. I guess this album lives up to its title; as good as it is, it is just a hint of better work to come.