Brian McBride – The Effective Disconnect: Music Composed for the Documentary “Vanishing of the Bees” LP – Kranky, 2010 – $15
Before I get to the specifics of the second solo album from Brian McBride of Stars of the Lid (skip down to the final two paragraphs for those), I’d like to address the fundamental question that Neil Major from The Line of Best Fits asks in his review of The Effective Disconnect: “How much use are you going to get out of these exquisitely serene drones?” Focusing the utility of any album seems strange to me. I don’t purchase new music with the foremost intent of filling a specific gap in my daily routine or avoid purchasing an album because its likely application has already been filled. My biggest concern is finding good music that appeals to my sensibilities, then determining appropriate contexts for playing it. This determination isn’t always cut and dry—I’ve found Stars of the Lid’s “Tippy’s Demise” to be tremendously affecting in a commute; Marnie Stern’s new self-titled album is my current go-to dishwashing soundtrack—but I enjoy the process of hearing how different styles work in different contexts. It’s no accident that McBride’s minimal soundtrack prompts this discussion, and not an album befitting one of the other listening contexts Major prioritizes (working out, commuting, getting ready to go out). “How much you listen to it will vary more on your lifestyle that the actual quality of the music,” which suggests two things: first, there is a low-key lifestyle fit for ambient classical; second, I am living it.
The ultimate point of Major’s discussion of utility is whether someone needs more than one album of music like Stars of the Lid. (Requisite tangential anecdote: Sometime during my teenage years when my CD collection hit 50 or so, my mom suggested that I probably had enough music. Not quite, Mom.) Ten years ago I could have seen his point and very well might have agreed with him. After all, I enjoyed Windy & Carl’s Antarctica, but bristled at the thought of being a completist. Now I'm more excited about a new Brian McBride album than the majority of other recent releases, and cringe at someone saying, “You’ve got one and that’s enough,” even if that one is Stars of the Lid’s wondrous And Their Refinement of the Decline. Let me rephrase: especially if it’s And Their Refinement of the Decline.
No album changed my listening habits more in the last decade than Refinement. I’d listened to ambient music before Refinement, but never in such heavy doses or varied contexts. To wit: I made a mix CD of ambient music back in 2002 with a single intent: before Keith Fullerton Whitman’s “Modena” comes on, I’ll be asleep. Granted, Refinement is a requirement for any extended air travel for that very reason, but the other contexts have been revelatory. The broadest change: learning how Stars of the Lid works equally well in passive and active listening modes. Whether I’m reading, working, or conversing, I can have Refinement on and switch which activity maintains my foreground attention. Yet my preferred context for Stars of the Lid, et al, is decompression. Typically this means the hour before I go to bed, but it can also mean driving home from hockey. In this particular scenario, the music has my foreground attention, but is essentially pushing this attention into the background. In this case, the music created its own context.
Now here’s why one album isn’t enough: every time I listen to And Their Refinement of the Decline, it becomes harder to listen to it in a purely background context. Not only do I get more and more emotionally involved in the songs, but I notice more elements of their construction. If I made a playlist with “Tippy’s Demise” and “A Meaningful Moment During a Meaning(less) Process” and sat down to read a book, I’d barely turn the page. This phenomenon keeps accelerating with each ambient record to which I give proper time and attention. Eluvium’s Talk Amongst the Trees, The Dead Texan’s The Dead Texan, Last Days’ The Safety of the North, Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet, and Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (to name a few) have each gained clarity and emotion with each passing spin. The clarity extends to the space between each artist and album; much like I could go on and on about the differences between Boys Life and Castor, two Midwestern rock bands from the mid 1990s, the gap between Stars of the Lid and Eluvium keeps growing larger as well. True, it’s a fundamental experience of familiarizing one’s self with any genre, but it’s particularly exciting for such an amorphous aesthetic.
So yes, Neil Major, I do need another album of ambient classical, and Brian McBride’s The Effective Disconnect is that album. It’s an album with a very specific intended utility—the soundtrack for the documentary Vanishing of the Bees—but one which doesn’t require that context to be successful. The combination of guitar drones and classical instrumentation isn’t far off from And Their Refinement of the Decline, but specific songs distance themselves from the tonal range of Stars of the Lid. The bright chimes and buoyant optimism which begin “Beekeepers vs. Warfare Chemicals” belie the song’s title, but soon enough the dour strings take over and darken the blue skies. “Chamber Minuet” highlights its string performances, sounding more like chamber music than the blurred drones of SOTL. Yet the familiar approaches are no less evocative. “Several Tries (in an Unelevated Style)” sells itself short, since the tonal switch from higher-register strings to mournful piano is devastating. The chord swells in “Toil Theme Part 1” are equally powerful.
In Stars of the Lid and on The Effective Disconnect, Brian McBride excels at imbuing the smallest changes in chords, keys, and instrumentation with exponentially large impact. It’s too austere to become melodramatic—a criticism which does occasionally apply to stylistic kin Eluvium—and it’s simple enough not to lose effectiveness or become tiresome. Part of me is surprised that it’s taken so long for McBride and/or Stars of the Lid to helm a soundtrack, but another part recognizes the danger of using music that is so resonant on its own accord in a secondary context. Perhaps my only complaint with The Effective Disconnect is McBride’s admission that it does not contain all of the music that will be heard in the film.