Old Punch Card
Label: Thrill Jockey Records
Release date: 2010-09-07
For those who don't know, Sam Prekop is a much lauded progressive musician from Chicago. He is well established and highly respected in the avant-garde music scene and this record, which is his third solo album, will only consolidate his indie credentials. Prekop started his career in music as guitarist, vocalist and founding member of new-wave rock group Shrimp Boat in 1985. Shrimp Boat were critically acclaimed but little known in the UK and after the dissolution of this group in 1993 Prekop went to form The Sea and Cake with fellow band member Eric Claridge. Prekop and Claridge enjoyed greater success and longevity with The Sea and Cake who are purveyors of ornate jazz-pop that incorporates certain European and African rhythms; think of them as Vampire Weekend with more bravura and less discipline.
In his day-job with his post-rock, prog-pop super-group, Prekop creates intricate and expansive melodies but his solo work is much more experimental and less immediately accessible. Old Punch Card is an instrumental album that is constituted of electronic music layered with analogue, ambient noise and sound effects. Unlike his last record, 2005's Who's Your New Professor?, there aren't really any conventional songs. At first listen the album seems to be extremely abstract and impenetrable. There are walls of electronic yelps and digital bleeps punctuated with elliptical synth melodies and everything is backed by rustling trees or broken two-way radios. The ambient noises on the album range from radio static, to grainy old record players, to rainfall to sci-fi police sirens.
Before becoming accustomed to the record, it can seem like it's difficult to tell one track from another as one dial-up modem meltdown fades into another. This changes when your ear stops trying to find the structures and patterns that we are accustomed to in conventional music. For example, on the first track, opaque electronic noise eventually gives way to an arpeggioed music box melody which creates an interesting juxtaposition of dissonance and melody. It's this opposition which is the key to the album.
Old Punch Card isn't music as we know it; it's almost an art installation and it is strangely affecting. Prekop's use of sound effects and background can be extremely evocative but Old Punch Card's greatest success is in how it contrasts analogue/biological sounds with digital and mechanical music. For example, the brief sound of jangling guitar strings in 'November September' is quite jarring amid the wash of electronic and analogue sounds. Such an opposition raises all kinds of questions as to whether the human emotional spectrum is very far removed from the zeros and ones of the digital spectrum; this is something that groups like Crystal Castles question in their music. The closing track on Old Punch Card, 'The Silhouettes', is at once a chip tune vignette and a lullaby and it creates a surprisingly deep and evocative sound.
The increase in this kind of music in recent years is due to the proliferation of relatively affordable, high-quality home studio equipment. Interesting musicians can now wilfully experiment without the pressures of being in a professional studio. This process can facilitate musical innovation as much as it can encourage self-indulgence and artistic pretention. Old Punch Card won't appeal to everyone but in terms of experimentation and progressive approaches to modern music, Prekop is right at the cutting edge. Let's hope he can incorporate some of his discoveries and the new musical dynamic that he has created into the next The Sea and Cake album.