September 21, 2004

Paul Duncan "To An Ambient Hollywood"

Paul Duncan's To An Ambient Hollywood is an exciting yet downcast record. He's a singular artist, recording all of the instruments himself and doing a pretty good job of it, too. . Don't be afeared by the simplistic cartoon design cover and the 'recorded, produced, all instruments played by, etc.' notations on the cover, though--this is not your father's crappy lo-fi side project. He does have some friends help him along, but they provide mainly orchestral-style backing on strings, trumpet, saxophone, etc--and thus the album loses a LOT of the bedroom studio polish, and I'm not quite sure I buy the whole angle that Duncan is making electronica-style music, either.

What I like about the record is that it defies categorization. Though his main inspiration is clearly folk, he doesn't fixate on that one particular style--after all, lo-fi folk rock is so passe, and if you want to be considered good, you have do it differently, and this is what he does. Though his singing voice recalls the masters of the folk genre (Will Oldham, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake), the music itself sounds like vintage Joan of Arc, and at times I thought I was listening to How Memory Works--which is a good thing. Like Kinsella and company, Duncan mixed in several instrumental passages that are an odd hybrid of folk, ambient and electronica, and this gives the record an acoustic yet electronic feel. For instance, when I first heard opening number "1 in 22," I thought the album would be instrumental post-rock folk not unlike Calexico, but then the album switched directions, heading straight for jazzy waters on "Ghost of A Memory."

Because To An Ambient Hollywood shifts between musical genres, at times it feels more like one long, continual musical movement. While I've always liked that kind of compositional device, it occasionally makes listening to the record a bit more demanding than necessary. Still, songs like "Swam an Ocean" and "Don't Look Now" make To An Ambient Hollywood a record worth coming back for repeat listens--and you should listen, because Duncan's excellent. Just don't listen to him if you're feeling happy, though.

--Joseph Kyle

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