(Apestaartje; 2006)

By David Greenwald | 2 June 2006

An unfortunate but necessary side effect of being a music enthusiast is tunnel vision. We read the best publications, download from the most interesting music blogs and trust the catalogs of certain record labels, all based on how well they satisfy specific needs. We shape our tastes carefully and organically, to the point where the simple mention of a band that falls within our genres of choice provokes instant affection or apathy (as well as the inevitable argument over whether their earlier stuff was better). We’ve found a comfort zone, a place where music feels satisfyingly safe and familiar.

Obviously this isn’t true for everyone, but most of us tend to have our genres of choice. I tend to play new music for my less enthusiastic girlfriend every week or so, just so she can hear what I’m obsessing over next. Her response, though, is always the same: “This sounds like everything else you listen to.” (Occasionally followed by, “But I like this song.” That’s when I give myself a high-five.) She’s right, of course – for those of us who don’t listen to a dozen albums every week, the differences between, say, Sufjan Stevens and Belle & Sebastian are pretty minimal. There’s more than enough variation there for me, of course, but this is what makes branching out so hard. At this point in my music listening career, I know what I enjoy and why.

Which brings us to Mountains, a duo that breaks one of my cardinal rules of great music: vocals. There’s not a voice to be heard on Sewn, the group’s sophomore effort. Instead, over the course of eight instrumental tracks, Mountains explore the aesthetics of ambient texture and beauty through field recordings, hypnotic folk guitar and blissful electronic elements. These are still songs with structure, if not necessarily the verses and choruses I’m accustomed to. More attention is paid to gradual shifts in dynamics and the quiet grandeur of the sounds themselves; natural noises are especially prominent, bringing a sense of context and fullness to the music.

“Below” opens with the sound of flowing water before introducing aqueous electronic ringing, and the burbling stream in the ironically named “Simmer” and the windy sample in “Bay” (paired expertly with wind chimes) provide fertile ground for the more compositional instrumentation to build over. It’s the background that earns the most attention; the more central musical parts, as with the guitar picking patterns of “Sewn Two” and “Bay,” tend to be repetitious, serving as anchors in a constantly shifting sea.

Sewn isn’t going to uproot the foundations of your taste, but it’s also a hell of a lot more challenging than Song of the Humpback or Ocean Surf: Timeless and Sublime. What it does incredibly well is provide an attractive change of pace for those wedded to vocal-based genres as well as standing sturdily among its contemporaries. It’s not the most exciting instrumental work I’ve heard this year (that honor goes to Growing’s Color Wheel), but it is the most absorbing. This is the kind of record that makes the often scary process of opening up to a new genre welcoming: usually it takes a fantastic harmony or pyrotechnic guitar work to catch my attention, but with Mountains it’s difficult to be anything but all ears.