One way you can tell casual listeners from self-appointed Music Fans: they have weird senses of organization. They are incapable of just filing things alphabetically. For a long time I thought I was the only person on the face of the globe who lined up his CD collection by influence / shared personnel, starting with Swans at one end of the shelf and running through Foetus, Coil, Neubauten, FM Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann and the like before finally ending (collapsing, spent, exhausted, panting) at John Zorn and Naked City. If there’s anything that goes on the shelf after Zorn, I’m not sure I want to hear it without something stiff to drink first.
Then I ran into a fellow music nut with a collection that was organized by label, and I thought: why the heck not? The best record labels, from Stax and Motown and early Atlantic all the way on down to indies like 4AD to cracks in the wall like PSF and Public Bath, are driven by the tastes and selectivity of their owners. You hear what they like to hear. Browse by stable- and label-mates, and you find treasure you might otherwise never blunder across (Last Visible Dog) — or you simply end up wondering how tough it really is to sleaze a recording contract out of some people (Vinyl Communications).
Even before the Australian label Extreme broke more than a few rules and peoples’ backs by offering the staggering 50-CD Merzbox, they were an outfit worth keeping an eye on. Thanks to positive reviews of their titles in the now-long-defunct Music from the Empty Quarter, I’d been scooping up their discs for a long time — e.g., another Merzbow disc, Music for Bondage Performance, probably one of the best things Masami Akita ever did and now remarkably difficult to find. (Get the CD for the liner notes, something all music downloads are missing badly.) Then came all the other artists of repute under their umbrella, from Muslimgauze to Laughing Hands, The Makers of the Dead Travel Fast to Ecclesiastical Scaffolding, Jim O’Rourke and Shinjuku Thief and Otomo Yoshihide and on and on. At least you can go broke in style.
And then there was the curiously-named Pablo’s Eye, and the even-more-curiously-named album You Love Chinese Food, which ended up in one of my larger JustTheDisc.com grab-bag shipments. Like so many of my best musical discoveries, they seemed to come from nowhere — they had no other albums that I could locate, none in print, anyway, no biography I could look up, no clues in their music about where they were from or where they were, you know, coming from. They (they?) were as faceless and inscrutable as Jandek. I later found out they were from Belgium and sported a revolving door of members, but by then I’d long decided the music would have to speak (sing, warble, burble, hum, buzz, drone) for itself.
Pablo’s Eye has been labeled everything from “ambient” to “tribal”, but again they’re one of those groups that simply demands to be heard without a label. Most of the tracks on Chinese Food combine four basic elements: soft swaths of guitar, understated electronic drum patterns, curious snippets of vocals and speech, and centerpiece band member Patrick Hanappier’s elegiac violin. Sometimes it’s amused (“When She Smiles”); sometimes inward-looking (“A Pagan Use”); sometimes strangely funny (“Austin, TX”); sometimes full of quiet wonder (“Opina”). The overall mood is a little like leafing through the books on a shelf in a stranger’s house: alien, but not alienating.
With records like this I typically gravitate towards the tracks that are just pure sound. What’s odd is that the best pieces here are the few tracks that have anything like lyrics, whether just spoken-word fragments or what seem like found sounds taped off the radio or TV. They create a kind of magical-realist atmosphere that I haven’t heard anywhere else — like you’ve pulled someone’s diary off the aforementioned shelf and started reading from that. “Absolute”, my favorite song on the record, has a good deal of this. “When She Smiles” and “Wedding Girl” employ a female voice that’s inches away from being a computer-synthesized creation; the flatness of the voice creates a wonderful contrast with the nostalgic words being spoken. “Gone by Night” uses another contrast: a radio evangelist (not of the usual Bible-thumper variety, though) played off Hanappier’s sobbing violin — again, the amusedly banal and achingly transcendent are forced to share the same space with amazing results.
Most of the best material is in the first half of the record, which establishes the general roster of sounds and moods used throughout. By the time the second half rolls around, it’s clear that you’re hearing pieces of the first half — a rhythm track here, a vocal sample there — being reprised in a heavily stripped-down form. The obvious word for this kind of presentation is “in dub”, but somehow the term doesn’t fit here, if only because all the other actual dub reggae albums I have squirmed at the making of the comparison. That brings to mind another odd-but-good hallmark of Chinese Food: I can never quite remember what order the tracks come in. The first couple of tracks are easy enough, but after that I quickly get lost — each song comes as a fresh surprise every single time, despite countless replays.
I have listened to this record I don’t know how many times now. I suspect I will still be listening to it any number of years into the future. I am, and remain, pleasantly confused by it. And I still haven’t the faintest idea where to put it on my shelf.