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Pontiac Streator/Ulla Straus - 11 Items Music Album Reviews

The latest on the adventurous West Mineral Ltd. label finds the mysterious duo crafting something with classic ambient earmarks as well as off-kilter addenda.

Ambient labels are generally contemplative, serious endeavors, from Brian Eno’s Obscure and Haruomi Hosono’s Monad to early chill-out imprints like em:t, each intently mapping out soundworlds and then fully immersing themselves in them. So when Brian Leeds set up the West Mineral Ltd. imprint last year, it seemed on the surface to further the ambient tracks he makes as Huerco S. and Pendant. But each new entry on the label seems to question the very nature of ambient music. Can it only be calming and relaxing? Is it only chill? Can’t it also be a little funny? And might ambient also embrace those decidedly non-chill feelings of anxiousness, alienation, and nausea? Leeds and friends plumb that dread zone with every new release.

The music crafted by the mysterious duo of Pontiac Streator and Ulla Straus has mostly been relegated to limited cassettes, until last year’s tantalizing yet too brief Chat EP, which showcased their penchant for goopy, 4th-world excursions. Now, given a full-length album, they craft something with classic ambient earmarks as well as off-kilter addenda—vocals clipped so as to render everyday language strikingly alien and hand drums that melt like spilled mercury with every hit—so that 11 Items sounds disquietly immersive and uneasy.

That sort of intangible quality gives 11 Items an unsettling feel, a world wholly inside a funhouse mirror. The fraught, reedy male voice bubbling up on “Item 7” could get mistaken for a Thom Yorke track, especially with the metallic thrums and fidgety circuitry churning in the background. But what to make of the applauding studio audience that keeps surfacing? The heavy bass, digital squelches, and ritualistic drums of “Item 3” bring to mind something like Miles Davis’ “Black Satin,” but Streator and Straus neither let the track gather velocity nor density, letting its elements instead slither away. “Item 3” strikes a perfect balance between hand percussion, stretched out electronics, and the distant sound of birds in the trees.

The latter part of the album most closely adheres to the template of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, full of foggy lullaby melodies, submerged voices, and unsourced noises that border on the nightmarish, as on “Item 10.” And “Item 1” features shimmering, floating keyboard chords that on their own would be relaxing, only to have the duo ladle atop it slippery drums and a slurred mechanical voice. Add to it some bird chirps and a mechanical whirring not unlike a rotating sprinkler head working overtime, it imparts a leaden feel like getting drunk too fast on a hot summer day.

In the interplay of voices on “Item 8,” it brings to mind the push-pull of ‘90s R&B tracks like this one: chirpy female coos and bassy masculine tones (think Timbaland’s uh-huh elongated into a lecherous groan), all cooked down to a viscous substance. But there’s another sample saying “No fucking way!” that continually knocks the mood off balance. Elsewhere, a hiccuping voice—after three minutes of just spitting out “OK”—finally spits out “OK, I just downloaded it.” Which is funny in its own peculiar way, even if you don’t choose to download it. Rather than simply use their loops and effects to cast a mesmerizing spell, Streator and Straus are just as happy to rupture it.

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