During the late summer and fall months, I found myself listening to lots of minimal, droning music because it seemed to match the mood that I was in. Groups like Labradford and Amp found themselves in my CD player quite a bit and I learned to appreciate the subtle-ness of closely controlled feedback and just the right combination of noise as music. The Boxhead Ensemble plays slow, sad drone music of this sort, and although their name might not sound familiar on first look, many of their members come from high-profile groups. Not only does Douglas McCombs (Tortoise) play bass on several tracks, David Grubbs (Gastr De Sol) and Jim O'Rourke play guitars. There are also appearances by several other big name artists including a song sung by Will Oldham.
Judging from the groups involved above, you might not expect the release to be such a drab affair, but given the subject matter that the music accompanies, it makes a little more sense. Dutch Harbor: Where The Sea Breaks Its Back is actually a black and white independent film that documents the life and travails of fishermen in a small fishing town in Alaska. The picture is minimal, and the music that goes along with it reflects not only the ebb and flow of the tide, but the bleakness of the location and stark images of the film. Basically, if you're looking for an upbeat affair, turn around and head the other way.
The album starts off with a track simply entitled "Introduction," and it leads into things effectively with a couple static bursts of CB radio, some interesting reeds work by Ken Vandermark, and two different guitars wrapping around one another (one in an ebbing drone while the other slides slowly and almost resembles a piano). After another short guitar track, the third track takes the same combination of instruments as the first track (after a nice spoken-word intro about the ocean) and goes into another 4 minutes of undulating feedback.
After yet another long track called "Ship Supply" (that doesn't vary enough after the first three tracks), the fifth track changes up things quite a bit with a solo piano piece. The slow, quiet "Telegraph Hill" also has wind and ocean noises as a backdrop and might just qualify as some of the loneliest music I've ever heard.
The interesting thing about the disc is that like Labradfords Prazision, there are really no tracks with rhythm to speak of on the album (except the long "At Sea" with great bass work by McCombs). Although I've never seen the film, just listening to the music and looking at the still photos from the documentary on the sleeve nearly creates that environment that I think they were looking to create. The lo-fi sound of "Ebb's Folly" (with Oldham on vocals) is perfect for the wayward seafarer with his almost-cracking vocals backed by simple guitars and some subtle electronic drones.
This is a soundtrack that definitely isn't for someone with a short attention span (or someone who dislikes long tracks without any perceivable groove to carry things). There is a lot of great music on the disc, though, and although it's a lot different than the similarly-themed Rachels disc The Sea And The Bells, it makes a nice complimentary listen because of the stripped-down nature of it. It's a good listen for those nights sitting at home alone reading while the wind is cold and whistling outside your window. After all, this is music for a bay in Alaska. It just wouldn't be right if it made you feel all warm inside.