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Jessamine, 6/10
The Long Arm Of Coincidence, 7/10
Another Fictionalized History, 7/10 (comp)
Living Sound , 5/10
Southerning: Templates Made Or Found , 6/10
Southerning: One Piece In 4 Parts, 6/10
Don't Stay Too Long, 6/10
Fontanelle, 7/10
Fontanelle: F, 5/10
Fontanelle: Style Drift, 5/10
Dawn Smithson: Safer Here (2005), 5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

(Translated from my original Italian text by Maria Giusti and Piero Scaruffi)

Jessamine revived the neglected school of the electronic song founded by the Silver Apples and the United States Of America in order to revisit it in the light of the British shoegazers of the time (My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3). The psychedelia of Ordinary Sleep (Silver Apple, 1993) was based on a constant flood of electronic hisses and an imponent beat that flows into a frantic crescendo. The instrumental intermezzo carried out at dance pace by the rhythm guitar recalls 1960s psychedelic suites, but the construct is too coarse and noisy to belong to hippy culture. The slow, solemn, and martial march of the second single, Cellophane (Silver Apple, 1993), keeps electronica in the background in order to prioritize an almost raga dialogue between guitar and bass, and to leave room for the singer's angelic contralto.

Jessamine (Kranky, 1994) shone a light on the trancendental quality of Andy Brown's electronic music, Rex Ritter's distorted guitars, and the granitic hypnosis of the rhythm section (Dawn Smithson's propulsive bass and Michael Faeth's imaginative drumming). The trance of Secret is concocted by persistent bass lines (a` la Pink Floyd's Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun), sudden raga guitar bursts, and a thin organ drone. On the other hand, the trance of Cellophane is all in a minor key, subdued and cosmic. That of You Have Ugly Talents Martha is entrusted to faceless strumming and sudden guitar lashes. The dynamics of the songs are rather monotonous, always based on an instrumental crescendo, and the bacchanal of effects is often too slender and uncertain to justify a song, when it doesn't lose itself in ramblings for their own sake (One Trick Pony that vanishes after nine minutes without even becoming something). Each piece is vitalized by a sound (the guitar crackling in Royal Jelly Eye Cream, the synthesizer butterflies in Ordinary Sleep) exalted in an unnatural manner. The lengthy jam Don't You Know That Yet tries to emphasize two core elements of their sound, the tribalism of the drums and the electronic disturbances, and the result resembles a version for spastics of Iron Butterfly's In A Gadda Da Vida.. The single Your Head Is So Small (SubPop, 1994) is taken from the album.

Jessamine contributed to the compliation Harmony of the Spheres (Drunken Fish, 1996) with 22:30, a modest and abulic sonata for anemic strumming and dissonant electronica: a defeaning roar within a tumult of synthesizers, a listless boogie that fizzles into nothing, an electronic vortex that gains speed on the resurging drumming.

On the monumental The Long Arm of Coincidence (Kranky, 1996) the music of Jessamine seems more cerebral, as if the band had retreated into a laboratory for two years (instead, many of these songs were recorded live). Ten songs for a total of an hour and a quarter of music demonstrate a degree of confidence in their own means. The guitar and the synthesizer are no longer the core of the music. Instead, the rhythm section (Dawn Smithson's bass and Michael Faeth's drumming) are by far the shrewdest instruments. Brown fidgets at the synthesizer with an almost jazz hand and contributes to the atmosphere of dizziness and confusion, but it's the bass and the drums that formulate the patterns upon which everything else is based.

Jessamine moves in two directions: a Can-like approach in experimental songs like Or What You Mean (oblique tempos, dazed contralto warblings, grotesque synthesizer noises) or the title track (a study of reverberations, free rhythms, and pauses); and a Soft Machine-sque tactic: Periwinkle and Polish Countryside draw inspiration from the icy jazz-rock of Soft Machine, mostly thanks to Smithson's bass. The pleasure of this album lies in the scholarly exercise of story-telling between the lines, in the dialectic between depth and ambiguity. The ectoplasms of the sythnesizer blend in the shadows of the bass and in the titanic geometries of the drums, and the result is almost worthy of chamber music. Actually, in the case of It's Cold in Space, it really is chamber music. The chiaroscuro of the sound progressively decays until it leaves only a mind-numbing synthesizer hiss. Following that implosion, only the sparse chords of the instruments are left to struggle in the void, like in a concert of avant-guard music. Smithson's tenuous and crystalline singing stands out in You May Have Forgotten, which in fact seems like a lied, only somewhat whimsical. Only Schisandra breaks from the bogs of this terribly intellectual masturbation, its quick-paced polyrhythms animate the album a bit, despite the insuppressible whimpering synthesizer. The only song worthy of this name is the opening Say What You Can, nothing more than a version of blues-rock for post-modernist philosophers.

After the album they released the singles Seagreen (Darla, 1996), a cacophony of drones recorded live, and It Shouldn't Take a Man So Long to Drown (Thingmaker, 1996).

(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

After moving to Portland (Oregon), the band released Another Fictionalized History (Histrionic, 1997), an anthology of their singles. The tracks span the period from 1992 to 1997 and were made mainly in basements and living rooms.
one of the few (early) vocal tracks is the cover of Suicide's Cheree (1993). A steady, solemn beat propels Electricity (1992), underpinning the Jefferson Airplane-inspired trip of the vocalists.
The purely electronic Reflections (1993) opens with a whirlwind of distorted synth waves, and pushes them to higher and higher orbits. It could stand as Jessamine's manifesto: Klaus Schulze minus Wagner minus Eno plus Red Crayola.
Jessamine elevate analog keybaords to classical or jazz music status with Soon The World Of Fashion (1994), a jam of wavering electronics over a smooth rhythm, with The Moon Is Made of Cheese (1995), a majestic crescendo that unfolds a warped melodic theme of abrasive electronics, and with It Shouldn't Take So Long For A Man To Drown (1995), a psychedelic concerto for electronic noises and guitar distortions. The approach to the keyboards is not the traditional one of the pop novelty, but the one usually reserved to the saxophone or the guitar. Another factor that sets Jessamine apart among Moog revivalists is the long introductions and codas of noisy doodlings (all the way to the abstract soundscape of Air From Another World, 1995).
When finally the guitar pens the soul-rock leitmotiv of From Hereto And Now Otherwise (1996), that quickly transcends into a torrid heavy-psychedelic jam, the feeling is that the track does not belong to this album.
While Pere Ubu, Residents, Chrome, Suicide and countless others had used before electronic keyboards to unnerving effects, Jessamine are the first to make it a full-fledged art that stands on its own.

(Translated from my original Italian text by Maria Giusti and Piero Scaruffi)

Southerning is Andy Brown and David Farrell's (Dawn Smithson's husband) project and Templates Made Or Found (Drunken Fish, 1998) is a compilation of five avant-guard suites, inspired in equal measure by cosmic Germans, American minimalists, and ambient music of their age. The sources are completely unrecognizable within the mechanical oscillations of Circular, the unorganized hissings of Filament, in the industrial poem RhSource, and, most of all, in the sublime music of Below, 17 minutes of electronic tremolo tones. Brown's magic touch on the keyboards renders anything he plays "different."

Don't Stay Too Long (Kranky, 1998) is credited to Jessamine, but is in fact Dawn Smithson's solo project. He composed all the melodies and lyrics. It's Jessamine's most pop album, even if the electric piano and the synthesizer retain that academic tone, halfway between the coldest tones of Soft Machine, the most cerebral tones of Can, and the most infertile tones of Terry Riley. All the same, Smithson and her arrangers search for the path to the song format via the jazzy lullaby of Elsewards, and the boogie-rhythmed nursery rhyme of Corrupted Endeavor. We have to settle for the blues schemes of Continuous, the unrelenting cadence of Pilot Free Ignition, the little funky mayhem of It Was Already Thursday, and, above all, the harsh bubbling of Burgundy. The biggest problem with these songs is the singer. Smithson's voice has a spectral, almost void, vocal, and it breaks apart as soon as it tries to stand out. At the end, the impression of a monotonous and, at times, tedious album remains, in which there is nothing to learn but a lot to forget. The instrumenal participations are interesting (in particular Michael Faeth's drumming and Rex Ritter's dadaistic timbres), even if not particularly exciting.

Living Sound (Histrionic, 1999) is a collaboration with E.A.R. that is mostly  improvised.

After the demise of Jessamine, keyboardist Andy Brown and guitarist Rex Ritter recorded Fontanelle (Kranky, 2000). The album features six instrumental jams that display the leaders' erudite knowledge of modern composition. Bowing to the likes of Soft Machine, John Cage, Miles Davis, and continuing the experiment begun by Jessamine with Burgundy, the duo concocts an organic flow of understated noises. Picture Start (ten minutes) weaves tonal and atonal piano patterns with spare guitar strumming and a steady beat, recalling Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. The jazz element is stronger in Telephone Fade but it never completely prevails. Improvisation is constrained by a rational scaffolding, and, while musical structure unfolds in subtle and uncertain ways, the feeling is one of tight control, not one of loose coupling. The same applies to cacophony. While dissonance abounds, it never derails the composition. Keyboards and guitar walk a thin line at the edge of harmony, but they do so embracing each other. A corollary is that neither is protagonist.
Niagara's foggy trance relies on the thickest and busiest tapestry. The psychedelic, transcendental suspense of 29th & Going pivots on the martial tones of the guitar and the raga-like wavering of the piano. The funk underpinnings of Counterweight dissolve in a discrete sequence of fractured melodies and timid echoes. One is even reminded of Peter Green's legendary End Of The Game.

Andy Brown's project Southerning, a collaboration with electronic musician David Farrell, continued on One Piece In 4 Parts (Histrionic).

Fontanelle's F (Kranky, 2001), recorded over a period of three years by an ensemble of (mainly) six musicians (keyboardists Andy Brown, Paul Dickow, Brian Foote, guitarists Rex Ritter and Charlie Smyth, drummer Matt Morgan), is an album of collective jazz improvisation augmented with electronic doodling. The feeling is still mostly "Miles Davis meets Can", and the seven jams do not differ much from each other. Corrective Lenses is darker, more threatening. Floor Tile is an essay in intricate counterpoint. But something is missing: soul.
Charm And Strange is not only a little too relaxed and calm: you keep waiting for something to happen, for Miles' trumpet to creep out and soar. Instead, the instruments keep trading melodic fragments until they get bored and then shut up. This sounds more like a practice session.

Fontanelle's Style Drift (Kranky, 2002) is a more organic offering. However, what it gains in consistency it loses in variety. The net result is still middle-of-the-road, atmospheric jazz-rock that is rarely captivating (the sprightly, funky Style Drift) and rarely inventive (the Japanese flavor of Scissure).

Jessamine's vocalist/bassist Dawn Smithson debuted solo with Safer Here (Kranky, 2005). She had already proven her psychological talent when crooning for Jessamine, but here she largely fails to coin a personal style. The psychedelic languor of Somewhere Far and the distorted neurosis of Speak Through Me are the closest she gets to establishing an original voice. The melancholy anemia of Nowhere Near and A New Day are certainly sincere and intimate, but certainly not unheard before. The closing Crossroads reveals that there might be a sophisticated soul-jazz-folk singer-songwriter hidden underneath the sphinx.

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