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Benjamin Lew - Le personnage principal est un peuple isolé Music Album Reviews

STROOM, a Belgian label whose releases are not so much reissues as alternate histories of avant-garde pop, surveys the dreamlike soundscapes of a fringe figure from the 1980s.

In a recent profile of the curious Belgian imprint STROOM, art director Nana Esi said, “You need some vagueness to be able to be flexible.” To which her partner and the label head, Ziggy Devriendt, added, were money not an issue, “I would immediately start a restaurant here in Ostend with the name STROOM, I would start a CBD shop named STROOM.” Music as sustenance, music as vapor: STROOM similarly slips out of easy grasp with every release. The label has drifted between sounds, countries, and eras; its releases are not quite reissues so much as alternate histories. One record might be hypnotic, globe-trotting ambient, another unabashed trance, while most revel in simply being unclassifiable.


That the label sought out Benjamin Lew aligns with this outlook. A furtive figure on the 1980s Belgian scene, Lew was responsible for a few evocative releases on the similarly genre-averse Crammed Discs label, working with the likes of the Durutti Column and Tuxedomoon. As Crammed owner Marc Hollander recalled, Lew wasn’t a trained musician but rather a guy who dabbled in “photography, writing, visual arts… and worked part-time as a cocktail mixer in a tropical bar,” serving drinks to other creative types. So his output makes sense in our current gig economy, as Lew sways between dreamlike ambient, woozy jazz, and skewered pop, beholden to nothing save his own whimsy. Le personnage principal est un peuple isolé draws from his ’80s albums and collects unreleased music, but it also feels like an unfinished portrait, given that it maddeningly leaves out his stunning, surreal 1982 debut, Douzième Journée: Le Verbe, La Parure, L'Amour.

The first few pieces here align Lew with other forgotten artists from that era only getting their due in the 21st century, like Woo, Gigi Masin, and Hiroshi Yoshimura. “Profondeurs des eaux des laques” and “Moments” draw on the playful slant of Erik Satie rather than the more objective ambient of Brian Eno, at once serene and gently surreal (the former title roughly translating as “the depths of lacquered waters”). Woodwinds and treated guitars move together in drunken duet, while “Moments” has all the resonant plinks, drips, and ripples of a good long bathtub soak.

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The title track falls into the lineage of Can’s “Ethnological Forgery Series” along with recent productions from artists like Jan Jelinek, Andrew Pekler, and RAMZi. Here Lew creates an imaginary sound with a carefully constructed blend of thrummed hand percussion, sitar twangs, the buzz of a double-reed instrument, and voices that could be in any tongue. It conjures a world as tenable as smoke, drawing you in only to dissipate after four minutes. “Qu'il fasse nuit” does something similar with clarinet, violin, and clattering percussion, weaving them together to sound like a jaunty highlands folk dance unearthed by Lew the ethnographer. On “Etendue,” he creates something both earthy and ethereal, mixing a church choir with the sound of someone calling to their herd.

Only two short songs in the middle of the album break the spell: “The Wheel” and “Little Birds Sit on Your Shoulder” are clunky rather than charming. Despite a knack for trying on numerous hats, Lew won’t ever be remembered as a savvy songwriter or a good vocalist. He’s at his best wringing plangent feelings out of minor-key drama, as on the excellently titled “La magnifique alcoolique” and in the struck chimes that twinkle across the pensive yet tingly “Joyeux regrets imprécis.” That song’s title might also serve as motto for both Lew and STROOM: “Happy vague regrets.”


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