&records is not just a record label, it’s also what you could think of as an ongoing conceptual art project, managed by two Montréal based artists: Fabrizio Gilardino and Michel F Côté. Both have been active on the Montréal music scene for many years, both releasing work on the Ambiances Magnétiques label and producing the annual “jazz sur mars” series. &records started in 2003, and has been putting out new albums ever since. 2010 proved to be one of their most prolific years, with over seven releases, spanning everything from solo recordings (Jean René’s Fammi), to noise rock (La Part Maudite), from electroacoustic improvisation (Palétuvier (rouge) ) to lush pop extravaganza (Alexis O’Hara’s Ellipsis).
What’s intriguing about the label is the concept behind it: &records is an imprint with a set end date: when Côté and Gilardino reach a total of 24 releases, the label will close its doors. It’s an interesting idea, and one that differs from the usual means of organization for a label, presenting the listener with the feeling that everything has been carefully considered and curated. The care that goes into the project is evident from the discs themselves, with each album featuring graphics by Gilardino silkscreened onto its cover. Packaging is minimal, with only the bare necessities in terms of descriptive text, but the craft and thought behind the project are obvious.
These three albums are among &records’ most recent releases, and despite their striking musical diversity, covering a gamut of musical approaches and techniques, they share a consistent atmospheric and evanescent quality. Whether electroacoustic, sample-based, purely improvised, partly composed, experimental sound art, noise or even indie post-rock style, the music makes you feel like you’ve walked into a fantastical treasure trove of sound. Blink once, and it might all be gone. Often making use of subtle and quiet electronics, these are intimate moments, further reinforced by the rhetorical understatement that seems to be the preference for all three groups / artists.
In Palétuvier (rouge) , the fourth in the Palétuvier series, Diane Labrosse (sampler), Philippe Lauzier (bass clarinet and saxophones) and Pierre Tanguay (drums) present a hushed yet focused series of four improvisations constructed almost purely from wisps of sound, and playing as much with silence and space as with sound itself. Even when there’s a sense of consistent momentum, or where the music appears busier, as in the opening track Miso Eratu, there’s still plenty of space left in between its pulses and grains. The beats on Dextrus Fitera feel a bit plodding and heavyhanded, but they nonetheless contribute to the impression of this album being one long composition, as opposed to four pieces related only by propinquity. It’s almost as if the musicians were slowly breaking down the component parts of the first track into shorter, quieter, and smaller elements, until, by the time the final Alvarum Macenza is reached, what remains is barely audible, forcing the listener to strain to hear what is going on. It’s as if the music is progressively slipping away, with Lauzier’s gossamer-thin threads of sound the final echoes of a barely remembered dream.
Alexis O’Hara’s Ellipsis provides a similar aesthetic of understatement, but with a quiet fortitude that imparts a greater sense of grounding and permanence, albeit one that still maintains the fundamentally translucent and soft character of her compositions. For this album, she’s joined by a coterie of Mile End/Montréal musicians, including Sophie Trudeau (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la band), Alexandre St-Onge (Shalabi Effect) and Radwan Moumneh (Jerusalem in My Heart).
The first thing to strike you upon listening to Ellipsis is the seductiveness of O’Hara’s voice, whose close, whispered quality makes it seem like she’s standing right beside you, telling you sly secrets no one else knows. At times it’s overdubbed, at times layered under the instrumental accompaniment, in a process of masking and unmasking that makes listening both hard work and something to relish. It’s compelling and intoxicating, the lyrics (in French, English and Spanish) switching from playful to somber in a heartbeat, all the while retaining their mildly acerbic wit. Even when the songs adopt a marginally disturbed character (Inside Joke (love is), Twenty-Three and Bugs), they remain beguiling and enthralling. Ellipsis is a gorgeously and skillfully rendered set of pieces that calls for listening to over and over again.
If Palétuvier (rouge) and Ellipsis are dreams wearing rose-colored glasses, Ave <w> is their distant cousin in slightly nightmarish Technicolor, sonically denser, with harsher, grittier textures, more strident in character but by no means overwhelming. This is a project by one Tiari Kese, who, according to Côté, is “a world-renowned pianist and French horn player, known for his interpretations of John Cage.” In fact, Kese is actually Côté, who also credits himself on percussion and electronics and joins trumpeter Gordon Allen (a.k.a. Ellwood Epps) in a set of pieces originally commissioned by Sylvain Émard Danse. The music is a mix of live recordings and samples featuring a wide range of influences, including (as Kese names them): Satie & Cage, Tétreault & Falaise, Siewert & Brandlmayr, B Günter, Fennesz, Neina and Oval.
Côté’s fondness for noisy, distorted sheets of sound combined with sweeter harmonies penetrating a morass of grainy distortion is evident throughout, as it is on his recent Mecha Fixes Clocks (À l’inattendu les dieux livrent passage). This proclivity of Côté’s for “musical white noise” is particularly clear on Marge brute du ƒ, where “Kese” performs sharply punctuated chords (courtesy Erik Satie) on the piano, their attacks triggering a patch that distorts and augments their overtone material. This and the opening Unit Vector in Vratsa are probably the most forceful of the pieces on offer here, the rest of which returns to the bittersweet atmosphere common to all three of the albums, well in line with the general aesthetic of this fine label.