Sun-Bleached Hand of the Manby Dominic Umile
Long before people were celebrating themselves through the nostalgic artificial filters in the Instagram and Hipstamatic apps, California artist and musician Scott Hansen was using his prints, photographs, and apparel designs to communicate a reverence for 16mm classroom films and old photography. Whether he’s drafting his own sun-bleached event fliers or treating photos in his studio, Hansen favors a vintage aesthetic. He’s written about the faded postcards that marked the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal and mined the Web to post long-gone European magazine ads on his site. Recording as Tycho, Hansen’s inspired sound productions feel appropriately soft and weathered. They’re an aural embodiment of the affinity for late-’60s- and ’70s-styled color saturation that he so frequently demonstrates in his illustrative work.
In an article about Polaroid for the Nation magazine, Barry Schwabsky wrote that the colors in the company’s iconic photos “seem to caress the surfaces they describe… smoothly flow[ing] across them with a kind of alert tenderness.” Scott Hansen’s Dive could be described in the same way. It’s fluid and subtle—an ambient electronic record styled with welcome rushes of live instrumentation.
Hansen has been making wordless electronic music for years, building each piece with organic accompaniment that’s often treated to make it sound both warm and worn. The acoustic guitars that roll through Dive, his debut LP for Ghostly International, mimic the temperate folk progressions on the early Simon and Garfunkel LP Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. Sea-spray sonics and unearthly keyboard squiggles splinter off into endless directions, sometimes finding their way around impossibly cylindrical basslines. Each cut on Dive is spacious, and the line between electronics and live performances on the album gets blurrier by the minute. “Coastal Brake” and “Hours” are wispy and serene, with delicately muted electric leads and understated disco/house rhythms. There are airy, keyboard-heavy interludes and, in cases like “A Walk,” the propulsion is nearly secondary, positioned between synths and flecks of the picks bounding off guitar strings.
Scott Hansen’s musical influences are not easily discernible, but it’s easiest to link his generally midtempo techno to Warp Records luminaries Boards of Canada. The Scottish electronic musicians seem similarly preoccupied with whirring old machines and the overdriven background music of 1970s classroom film projectors. The BoC comparison has been made a thousand times before, but it’s an apt one. Look no further than a live version of a Hansen track called “Cascade.” (Originally intended to land on the new album, the track backs “Hours,” a Dive single issued in September. It also appeared on a free compilation from Ghostly and Adult Swim in 2009.) A hissing kick/snare tumble steadies a loop-rife foundation on this hazy beaut, and its base of cycling samples includes a narrator clip and warbled analog keys that sound decades old. With these elements in play, “Cascade” could indeed be confused for an outtake from BoC’s similarly styled In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country. Instead, it’s a Dive castaway that didn’t make it to the record, although a couple of even older tracks found their way in.
The release of Dive was a long time coming, but it isn’t even a completely “new” album, and it’s got a few tracks that have long been a part of my steady listening diet. For a Tycho enthusiast, experiencing the four-year-old “Daydream” as part of the artist’s first full-length release since 2006’s Past Is Prologue (itself a reboot of an earlier endeavor) is initially a downer. Dizzying slow-cooker “Adrift,” released in 2008, also made it into the set. But it quickly becomes obvious why these cuts are included on Dive. While new productions would have certainly been welcome in their place, these two tracks fit snugly into the lush, kaleidoscopic frame of the record. Both are rimmed in tape-reel hiss and crackling looped acoustics, and to new listeners of Hansen’s increasingly affecting work, Dive would be incomplete if the contextual pieces that got him here weren’t included in the package.
“Adrift” was a loose, melancholy opener at a recent Tycho show in Williamsburg. Blue and orange hues washed over the stage where Hansen stood. He triggered swirls from his laptop and helmed a keyboard between his backing drummer and bassist. When he summoned an ambling synth melody, each note frayed wonderfully and threatened to slip out of tune. Then Hansen’s drum break dropped in and “Adrift” shimmered, finally in its complete form. Timeworn footage of legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau took shape on the canvas behind the band, and the players fleshed out every kick. We nodded along as Cousteau worked against the rushing waters. Chunks of ice drifted by, bobbing in the big, grainy, blue backdrop.
Dominic Umile lives, writes, and drinks in Greenpoint.