ARTS

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February 7, 2003

Shuttle 358 blasts off

When I first heard the title of Dan Abrams's new album, his third record under the name Shuttle 358, I immediately thought of "Wildlife Analysis," off of Boards of Canada's seminal Music Has the Right to Children. That track was an ethereal opening to a dreamy album that utilized analog synthesizers and samplers to create a beautifully "organic" sound.

Understanding Wildlife makes the same implicit claim, both in its title, and in tracks called "Finch," "Burma," and "My Backyard." Nowhere to be found are titles of the Autechre/Aphex Twin variety, like "Liccflii" and "Kladfvgbung Micshk."

And Abrams's promise, if it can be called that, is upheld. Although it maintains the minimalist aesthetic embodied by Mille Plateaux, there is more of a focus on mood here than structural experimentation as an end in itself. For the most part this makes for a more emotionally engaging listening experience than other works in the "clicks and cuts" vein.

For instance, "Everyday I Worry," with its warm underlying drone and metronomic tick, suggests a sultry summer sunset tinged by encroaching paranoia. "Rubber Clock" is an aptly titled song, evoking blissful moments when time is elongated or distorted. With soft fluid chords overlaid by a stuttering mechanical hum and reverberating bells, Abrams creates a tension between hard and soft edges, elbows and heartbeats. It is one of the lovelier tracks on the album, in addition to the "Rocks are Nice," which follows.

Bright static disruptions mar the surface of the latter, like gorgeous knives slicing open crisp cucumbers and juicy red tomatoes. This particular sound, perhaps more distinct and unfamiliar than any other on the album, manages to seem dry and wet, and by the same token both artificial and natural.

An earlier track entitled "Plastination" calls to mind the same permeable opposition. Named after the process used by notorious Gunther von Hagens, through which organic tissue is desiccated and impregnated with a reactive polymer, "Plastination" perfectly conjures both the science of the procedure and Abrams's fascination with it. Little pulses, warm and raspy, suggest both a shrinking specimen and green bubbles in an Erlenmeyer flask (the color I imagine it to be).

"My Backyard" utilizes a shrill chirp and what sounds like processed chimes to evoke electronic birds twittering on a cathode ray. The vibrant background hum suggests a pulsing sun reflecting off iridescent wings.

"Burma" seems to reuse the lovely refracted guitar sample of "Finch," but this time structures it around a tweaked field recording to haunting effect.

If this review is heavy on metaphor and evocation, that is because so much of Understanding Wildlife is built around constructing a relationship with the album itself. With eyes closed and ears enveloped by headphones, you go searching. You have to pick through the sounds, find every aspect of every minute click and every vibrating chime. You cannot attempt to describe the "sound" of understanding wildlife; it's an intuitive understanding built on abstract knowledge, interior images. While Understanding Wildlife is not a "difficult" album, it grows deeper with each listen. And indeed, understanding the album may help you understand why, as the inside cover reads, Abrams "wants to understand."