Jim Fox: The City the Wind Swept Away
Michael Jon Fink: A Temperament for Angels
Daniel Lentz: Los Tigres de Martre
Steve Peters: from shelter
The 2003 release of The Complete 10-Inch Series from Cold Blue brought considerable (and deserved) attention to the Venice, California-based label. Its three discs of extraordinary music by seven composers proved especially satisfying for highlighting their works' dramatic contrasts. Certainly the two violins and gourd rattles of Peter Garland's Matachin Dances, for example, sounded completely unlike the pedal steel guitar and 12-string dobros of Chas Smith's “Scircura” or the clay ocarinas and pipes of Barney Child's Clay Music. Even more striking, though, was the fact that this superb music was more than two decades old, having been released originally as vinyl EPs in the early 1980s. If the original cover designs (displayed in an accompanying booklet) look of their time, the music, now made available for the first time on CD, sounds anything but. Heard separately, the works captivated but, assembled, resonate with a grander significance by cohering into an encompassing portrait, essentially functioning as an implicit manifesto for the label's aesthetic.
Started by Jim Fox in the early ‘80s, Cold Blue established a 'Southern California Sound' or 'West Coast Minimalism' but then shut down after only a few years of operation. The music itself sounded tailor-made to frustrate those obsessed with categories and labels; what term could possibly be used to describe, say, the eery cry of the prepared guitar in Chas Smith's “These Things Stop Breathing”? Yet, in spite of the artists' differences in musical styles and instrumentation, a Cold Blue persona came into focus which still applies today. The label's music is minimal without sounding rigorously systems-based; nor is its sound minimal in a way that suggests kinship with Glass and Reich beyond the inviting accessibility of their collective musics. Its uncluttered spaciousness evokes open plains and deserts, and, in spite of its name, the music eschews austerity for sensuality without lapsing into sentimentality. With a lonely wistfulness at its core, its music is seductive and pretty yet never cloying. There's a happy ending to this story, too: To the delight of those entranced by its earlier incarnation, Fox revived the label in 2000 and since then there has been a steady stream of new releases.
Which brings us to these four gorgeously presented singles of premiere recordings by Jim Fox, Steve Peters, Michael Jon Fink, and Daniel Lentz (Fink and Lentz also included on the reissued set, incidentally). In Fox's The City the Wind Swept Away, keening string harmonies and soft trombone rumbles drift through the piece's desolate expanses with Bryan Pezzone's sparse piano playing the delicate thread, his triads forming a pensive pendulum. There's a static quality to Fox's piece while also an inexorable if glacial impetus nudging it forward. The sparseness of the instrumentation helps create the impression of emptiness, an impression obviously reinforced by the work's title. More mercurial by comparison, Daniel Lentz's Los Tigres de Martre mutates dizzyingly through multiple keys and stylistic episodes: Debussyesque one moment, Glass-like another, with aggressively stormy moments offset by harp-flavoured interludes of delicate languor. It's a concerto of sorts for Marty Walker with his clarinet enveloped by glissandi strings and electronic choirs, bells, and assorted other percussion. Composed for a Lane Lucas dance/theater work, Steve Peters' 1997 from shelter includes the lovely pieces “Three short stories” and “My burning skin to sleep.” The mournful tones of Alicia Ultan's ululating violas prove alluring on the former, while Peters' sparse piano chords form a backdrop to Marghreta Cordero's haunting vocals in the latter. The longest of the four at over twenty-eight minutes, Michael Jon Fink's A Temperament for Angels features an ensemble of strings, percussion, and electronic samples. More abstract and atmospheric in comparison to the other three, this brooding soundscape eschews melody for elusively morphing textures and chromatic harmonies until it ends with spectral cymbal shimmers.
A better introduction to the label would be harder to imagine, as the singles capture the remarkable beauty of Cold Blue's singular sound. How apropos that a photograph of the Palomar Mountain Observatory (though so draped in shadow it's almost unidentifiable) should adorn the cover of the three-disc collection, given the degree to which Cold Blue's music ranges over vast expanses. While less totalizing than the 10-inch set, these four remarkable snapshots memorably distill the label's essence into manifestly digestible form.