Friday, May 4, 2012


CFCF - Exercises EP
Paper Bag Records, 2012

With the end of the semester comes a return to blogging, and what better way to kick things off than with a review of this gorgeous EP from Montreal artist CFCF. If you like Tim Hecker's Dropped Pianos (which I very much do), or, perhaps more tellingly, James Blake's Klavierwerke EP, then chances are you will find something to enjoy on this release. Mike Silver, the man who records as CFCF, is a talented enough musician to avoid simple repetition (or outright imitation), though. He trades in Hecker's chilly reverb and stark piano and organ sketches for much more fleshed out "exercises" (hence the EP's title) that utilize not only piano, but also a variety of keyboard and synth tones, some soft beats, and one rather arresting vocal turn. It's the latter that makes me think of Blake--along with the accomplished piano playing throughout--but whereas I found Klavierwerke to be hard, dull, and grey, a difficult piece of music to warm to, let alone to find a way into, Exercises is almost comically easy to fall in love with. Indeed, if the year were ending tomorrow and I had to make a year-end top ten, CFCF would sit in the number two slot (right behind another EP you might have heard...). With the possible exception of Four Tet and Burial's collaboration "Nova," Exercises is the prettiest music I've heard all year, a real treat for the ears that is, for all its potential for cold, academic abstraction given its instrumentation and genre, surprisingly warm and human when you get up close. In short, I'm bewitched.

In the press material surrounding the album, Silver offers a slightly different lineage for the EP's sound than the one I've suggested above, citing Philip Glass and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Perhaps more telling, though, than even this sonic heritage, is a description of the album's contextualizing cues--"institutional architecture and 70s Canadiana"--out which Silver constructs an album of "snowy walkways and long corridors, endless escalators ascending to desolate concrete plateaus . . . exploration[s] of lost memories, studies in nostalgia, exercises in spatial remembrance." It doesn't sound a million miles away from a release on Ghost Box or the Caretaker's latest project, and it wouldn't be hard, I'd imagine, to use the EP as a kind of tool for hauntological explorations. More importantly, in my opinion, these descriptions suggests the paradox at work in this music that makes it so bizarrely affecting: these tracks--"exercises" as they are called--are framed by their titles as at once miniatures, things on their way to becoming something larger and grander for which the EP is only practice, and evocations of large, emotionally resonant concepts like "School," "September," or "Loss." The contradictory tug of their relatively compact structures versus their large emotional payoff means that even those tracks that initially seem like interstitial moments searching for an album or pleasant meanderings missing a song bloom and blossom into something else entirely over the course of a listen.

Opener "Exercise #1 (Entry)" recalls to mind the score for Donnie Darko briefly, but the arcing synth lines behind the piano coat the track in a kind of graceful neon chill, arpeggiated lines twinkling away in the background and providing both colour and melody. Like the best minimalism, the piece feels at once static and incredibly mobile, shifting through its insistent reiterations. "Exercise #2 (School)" is one of the few beat driven tracks, and its clattering, panned percussion adds a propulsive thrust to the ringing, echoing piano at the track's foundation and the whistling, noodling synth leading the melody. It's the middle of the EP that's most impressive, though, with Exercises 3, 4, and 5--that's "Building," "Spirit," and "September" for those of you keeping score at home--offering the true highlights. "Building" is the most overtly Glass-ian piece here, riding a series of repeating piano motifs to an ecstatic climax, brash synth lines voicing a nagging, wistful melody, while "Spirit" takes the opposite approach: moving like sunbeams slowly filling a room with light, it is a graceful and meditative peak (and reminds me of Mogwai's "Tracy" and "Moses? I Amn't"). "September," meanwhile, is the lone vocal track, and, coming in the midst of the other instrumental pieces, its reimagining of David Sylvian's 1987 song of the same name feels almost too large next to the rest of the material here, a culmination of the emotional potency surrounding it in a moment of autumnal pop beauty. The instrumental refrain between vocal sections is unspeakably wonderful, shuddering and wheezing like machines drawing breath.

There's little let down in the EP's final three tracks. "December" opens like "Entry," but as its piano lines gain force and begin to expand, the kind of blooming and blossoming I mentioned above starts to occur. With the synths sounding like accordions, Silver picks out a lovely, falling melody before suddenly shifting into a hollowly metallic synth tone that offers its own weird, plastic beauty. The track slowly recedes, never quite seeming to vanish entirely, hovering on the edges of hearing like the afterimages from staring at a light. The buzzing synths in "Loss" offer the kind of retrofuturist air that would feel quite at home in a National Film Board documentary on institutional architecture, but it pales next to the final track, "Change." The only other piece to feature beats, the chopped and distorted opening gives way to a percussion line that sounds like a machine at work, pistons pumping and valves blowing off steam. As a clap begins to assert itself, the track reassembles into a minimal disco number before the synths return to close out the EP on its harshest, most discordant note.

At just over 26 minutes, Exercises might seem slight. It's a quick, enjoyable listen, though, and it doesn't outstay its welcome, which, for an album of instrumental piano and synth sketches, is a real danger. For all its listening in on a laboratory session set up (the EP as a form naturally serving as a kind of ideal testing ground for new styles or sounds), Exercises is a cohesive listen, a statement as much as it is a question. There's little sense of hesitancy or tentativeness on Silver's part, and he has a fine ear as a composer for both lush sounds and interesting melodic developments. "September" hints at just how malleable the kind of music being worked through here is, and if it's any indication of what's coming next from CFCF, then it bodes well for some real fireworks on his next full-length. In many ways, CFCF is here for me what Oneohtrix Point Never seems to be for others, though his nostalgia is never quite as palpable or overt as Daniel Lopatin's.  While the start of May, and here on the East Coast the return of summer-like weather, might seem a strange time of year for this release, Exercises is both light and airy enough to accommodate spring breezes and solid enough to cut through humidity. I know I'll be playing it a lot in the coming months.

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