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Sean McCann - Puck Music Album Reviews

This collage work by the Los Angeles composer weaves together stray chamber compositions, ambient recordings, voices, and more, yielding a mesmerizing sound both dense and diaphanous.

For more than 10 years, Sean McCann has been a purveyor of unabashedly precious ambient music. So sentimental are his works that they could soundtrack euphoric dream states shrouded in soft-hued bliss. Some of his recent albums, Simple Affections in particular, have a childlike wonder to them; they exude the charm of expansive, colorful fantasy worlds. On Puck, McCann continues down this path of evocative storytelling, inviting listeners into a space so soothing that leaving its confines can leave one wistful—like waking up to gray skies after the most comforting slumber.


Puck ensnares its listeners with a peculiar assemblage of recordings drawn from his own archives. Dating from between the late 2000s and 2018, McCann’s source material includes chamber works, ambient, and a quaint piece for guitar. They amass into a lively collage that’s as sprawling as it is cohesive: Odd groaning noises and time-stretched samples sit alongside lavish string arrangements. The constant activity prevents listeners from settling into longform drones. Such liveliness is clever: It leads to a hyper-awareness of every instrument’s role, amplifying the richness of every sound and, consequently, song.

The album begins with a three-part suite titled “Folded Portraits.” The first track, “Nightfall,” is a fanfare in slow motion, with deliquescent strings and brass interwoven with human voices—there’s singing, but also humming, background chatter, and the clearing of throats. All this vocalizing transforms the piece into a domestic drama; it overflows with a queasiness and nostalgia akin to sound artist Graham Lambkin’s own collage works. More crucial is how McCann toys with the arrangement and mixing to ensure the song is as dense as it is diaphanous: The swirling instrumentation wraps around listeners without being overbearing.

“Broth” follows suit, but its longer runtime better demonstrates McCann’s compositional skills. Throughout, musical bibelots and snatches of melody become the central focus, but only for brief moments. Dewy piano chords lead to cartoonish yelps, and on to scratching sounds captured at close range—it’s like a cast of actors rotating the lead role, and the result is the semblance of a musical narrative emerging from the hodgepodge of instrumentation. “Damals” is comparatively bare but nonetheless engrossing: It centers on a manipulated, wavering vocal melody that’s occasionally interjected with piano and voices. Even at their simplest, McCann’s pieces intend to mesmerize.

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Puck’s whimsicality evokes childhood, especially on the title track. “Puck” fills much of its 21-minute runtime with McCann and sound artist Lia Mazzari reciting found poetry based on Fabergé eggs. They cull from a multitude of sources—recipes, blog posts, news articles—and their reading of the text grants it new meaning. Mazzari’s intonation makes “Puck” sound like a mother reciting a bedtime story. At one point she says, “The family’s only source of ventilation was in the grand duchesses’ bedroom, but peeking out of it was strictly forbidden.” Without looking it up, you might never have guessed that the text comes from the Wikipedia entry on the execution of the Romanov family. Fifteen minutes into the track, we hear snoring amid the sound of pages turning, as if listeners have finally been put to sleep.

More than any of McCann’s previous albums, Puck makes the saccharine sublime. The restlessness of these tracks, which are composed of works from throughout the Los Angeles composer’s career, mirrors the feeling of reflecting on adolescence: Scraps of faded memories, both pleasant and upsetting, create a deep longing to re-experience emotions, people, and places. Puck makes evident that looking back can be like entering into a dreamworld of your own making. As McCann forges a path between past and present, between waking and sleeping states, these pieces transcend mere sentimentalism; they transform reminiscence into something hyperreal.


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