Review: Jherek Bischoff’s Composed

Jherek Bischoff: Composed (Brassland, 6/5/12)

“Young and Lovely” f. Zac Pennington & Soko

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Jherek Bischoff has more than a few tricks up his very well-tailored sleeves. You know it just by looking at him, at his satin-collared tuxedo and manicured hairdo circa 1939, at his high cheek bones and golden-brown eyes, the color of failing light refracted off coated steel. Bischoff is maybe a renaissance man, maybe one of many. He’s not the only musician whose pedigree includes both experimental ensembles like Xiu Xiu and more classically oriented groups like Wordless Music.

Bischoff’s latest, Composed, is a piece of immaculately arranged orchestral pop, one whose level of baroque whimsy varies by track and by guest after noteworthy guest. The second song — following a brief instrumental introduction — has an elegant and romantic lilt to its lush strings, carrying David Byrne’s vocals like a wave. The very next song feels more contemporary, with a daring vocal part by Caetano Veloso sung over the string section’s muted and dissonant strikes and the invasion of distracted electronics in the midst of its finale.

As when an illusionist procures a dove from a hat, however, the real magic here is in what you don’t see, or notice right away. Though Bischoff did use Kickstarter to raise $6,000 to perform Composed with a live orchestra at the Ecstatic Music Festival in Manhattan, no such orchestra played on the record. Instead Bischoff wrote the songs on ukulele, biked to individual’s homes, and set up in their living rooms: he recorded a single violin, a single cello, a single snare drum as many as 20 times, layering them together to create the full sound that listeners now hear.

The most beguiling trick is a simple sleight of hand, one that can only be experienced by starting the album over once it finishes. “Insomnia, Death and the Sea” is a kinetic, cinematic closer, its final three minutes a long crescendo that erupts in a moment that is undeniably the climax of the entire record. But is it triumphant? Or is it tragic? Only as “Introduction (Defeat)” fades in again does the answer become clear.

And yet we’re duped again, because on the intro’s heels comes that light baroque sound of the David Byrne track, the sound not of defeat at all but of a promenade through Shangri-La. Then again, it may be the celestial strings of the afterlife. Either way, the ambiguity is the best part, and it’s a magical few minutes, hearing the album interact with itself. It probably wasn’t even intentional, yet it feels like the work of a master illusionist.

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