Aug 29, 2007

Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides by Manual (Review)

Hopefully, this collection of odds and sods from Manual’s archives presages a sea change in Jonas Munk’s career.

Lost Days Maual
Reviewed…

Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides by Manual

I doubt anyone will ever be able to accuse Jonas Munk of being a slacker. Munk, who records dreamy, shoegazer-laced electronica (or is it electronica-laced shoegazer?) under the Manual moniker, has released seven full-lengths in as many years and contributed to numerous compilations, and has even done the odd producing gig here and there (such as Rumskib’s self-titled debut).

And when you’re that productive, there’s bound to be an accumulation of flotsam and jetsam in your catalog: unreleased tracks, compilation contributions, remixes, covers, and the like. Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides is an attempt to deal with all of that, culling together numerous odds and ends from the Manual catalog in a two-disc, 20-song package that spans nearly two hours.

As you listen to Lost Days…, two things quickly become apparent. First, that everything Munk releases is pretty lovely to listen to. Indeed, he might easily be one of the most consistent purveyors of ambient, shoegazery sound today. Second, that said consistency is a two-edged sword. While Munk’s music is uniformly solid, it’s also often similar and repetitive, a fact that becomes increasingly clear as you make your way through these two discs.

Munk has clearly found a comfortable niche in which to situate himself, which translates into a specific range of guitar effects and tones, programming rhythms and beat loops, and song structures that he employs time and again. His guitar-playing is equal parts Durutti Column and Slowdive, with shimmering, coruscating guitar loops layered on top of eachother. Meanwhile, the same shimmery effects are applied to his synths; meanwhile, his rhythmic loops and drum programming proceed at the same whirring, clicking, clattering pace (not quite drum n’ bass, not quite trance, and not quite simple 4/4 techno, but somewhere inbetween) with each successive track.

And while it’s all really pretty, conjuring up visions of oceanic sunsets, star-filled arctic nights, wide-open coastal vistas, and hazy, nostalgic summer evenings, the music begins to feel increasingly redundant after so long, becoming well-nigh impossible to distinguish one track from another.

Are you listening to “Summer Haze,” which was released on Morr Music’s Blue Skied An’ Clear compilation in 2002? Or is it the previously unreleased “Into The Blue”? Or perhaps his remake of Port-Royal’s “Karola Birch”? Who knows? All of the tracks eventually blend together into one golden, haze-drenched mass of sound.

Occasionally, something sticks out, such as his cover of “Crockett’s Theme” from Miami Vice, which comes off as both toungue-in-cheek and swimming in ’80s nostalgia, right down to the hot guitar licks that Munk layers over the pulsing synthesizers and electronic drumpads. But in the end, the only real distinction between the songs is whether they have beats or not.

The first disc of Lost Days… consists of Manual’s more “pop-oriented” pieces. Meanwhile, the second disc focuses on his more ambient, beatless tracks. It’s in this secondary phase that I’ve always felt Munk shines a little more brightly, that his music achieves a slightly stronger resonance. Here, freed of those clicking, clattering beats, his atmospherics have a broader expanse across which to spread.

Sure, it all eventually blends into the background as so much aural wallpaper, but that doesn’t deny the beauty that exists within tracks like “Open Skies” (which brings to mind the same glaciers and tundras that the Cocteau Twins soundtracked on Victorialand), “Andaman” (whose glurpy, Robert Rich-esque undercurrents evoke deep, forgotten, mist-enshrouded jungles), and “Seleva” (which originally appeared on the Little Darla Has a Treat For You, Vol. 21 compilation, and remains one of my favorite Manual songs).

In the end, I have to say what I always say when I encounter a release like Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides, a release that feels like a clearinghouse of sorts. I’d like to think that this release of old tracks, remixes, and other odds and sods from the Manual archives is the harbinger of a sea change in Jonas Munk’s career. That Munk has grown tired of being comfortable, of being in his niche, of cranking out album after album of the same lovely stuff time and again. That he’s ready to start exploring new sounds, textures, and sonic territories. I know I’m ready to hear it.

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