TALsounds, ‘All The Way’
All The Way, the new album from Goodwill Smith member TALsounds (aka Natalie Chami) is by turns hypnotic and gripping, with swaths of gorgeous texture that metamorphose into songs and back again before your ears. Listening to the album is kind of like taking a late-night walk and encountering a possum, frozen in its tracks, staring at you — there’s a flicker of acknowledgement, a faint kind of communication, but ultimately the experience remains a mystery.
Ambient music (or “drone,” or “noise”; genre is kind of a moot point here) is refreshing because in some sense, it gives us a break from people. Sometimes it’s nice when a sound is just a sound, rather than an extension of a person. Sometimes it’s also nice when a sound is a place, an environment to be in for a while that doesn’t act directly upon you. However, with some finesse, a soundsmith can place herself in that environment without altogether ruining the illusion. All The Way is filled with little reminders of human presence, of knobs being twisted and buttons being pushed, moments a little too perfect to come out of pure chance. It also features a captivating voice that never makes itself fully known. The only lyric on the album that I can I say with at least 95% confidence that I understand is “But I made up my mind” in “Mind,” at least for the first few repetitions until it gets turned into a sound stew by a delay tornado. Chami herself appears as a figure on the fringes of these songs, preferring to let the environments she creates speak for themselves. Essentially, these are songs made not of words or thoughts but of waves and wires.
Speaking of which, instruments used on the album are listed as “voice, synths, oscillators, effect pedals, loop pedals,” but I could have sworn I heard an Oldsmobile starting up and a socket wrench set falling down a stairwell. The textures that Chami coaxes out of her electronics are sometimes incredible, especially given that the songs were recorded live with no overdubs. The impossibly gooey “Mind” feels like a mouth full of nougat, and the opening of “Talk Alone” sounds like a game of laser tag on a frozen lake.
The fact that the album was recorded without overdubs means that the songs develop in a fairly linear fashion. Focus tends to fall on one sound at a time because, assuming Chami is not pressing buttons with her toes, she can only be manipulating one or two things at a time. This creates a sense of movement within the sonic setting, as certain sounds begin in the foreground and gradually move into the background through repetition or decay. If a late-era Morton Feldman piece creates a space of rarefied stillness for five hours, then each song on All The Way creates a space where debris blows about on gusts of wind for about five minutes.
There are two main ways that I listen to an album like this. On one hand, it sounds like a series of desert landscapes, or abandoned parking lots, or limestone caverns — places that are conjured up by majestic expanses of sound. On the other hand, it sounds like a person sitting at home making interesting noises with some cool doodads. The latter approach may seem a bit literal-minded, but I find it’s equally important for my enjoyment of the music. What I find so alluring about All The Way is its seamless mixing of the human and the not-human. The sounds are otherworldly and reminiscent of swirling alien vistas, but you can feel a human presence if you decide to listen in that way. The live-recording technique allows a keen-eared listener to follow the movement of the songs — the building of loops, the manipulation of oscillators and delays, and so on — as immediate, personal touches as well as part of an imaginary landscape. If you can hold both of those perspectives in your mind as a listener, All The Way unfolds as a nuanced feat of duality.