Album Reviews

Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise

(Circus Company) UK release date: 14 February 2011

Nicolas Jaar doesn’t make dance music. Not really. The Chilean-American producer – aged only 21 years, and certainly fitting of the label wunderkind – blends electronic elements with field recordings, sound collage, samples, string instruments, loops, and his own voice to create something sparse but melodic, challenging but breezy. He keeps the BPMs low enough that dancing to his work is unlikely, and his club performances tend to be a give-and-take between himself and the audience; he’s not looking to move hips, but to find communion. His approach can’t be pigeonholed into any sub-genre of electronic music, and the effect is that his debut full-length (after a series of well-received remixes and singles on his own Clown & Sunset imprint), Space Is Only Noise, is in a class by itself.

Jaar is a student of Brown University in Rhode Island, part of a new breed of electronic musicians doing things on their own terms. Ricardo Villalobos is a major inspiration, and he’s likely to be compared to James Blake. He made his debut at the age of 17 with a string of EPs (Student, Marks And Angles, A Time For Us), and has since enjoyed a well-deserved meteoric rise in notoriety in certain circles.

Space Is Only Noise is a special kind of weird; its empty spaces feel heavy with importance, while its rare flashes of exuberance feel carefully planned and lovingly crafted. Perhaps most impressive is Jaar’s sense of restraint; Space is a claustrophobic affair, sure, and it’s got all the earmarks of being crafted by an over-thinker, a heady intellect with an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything from pop music to jazz to the emotional and ecological effects of an autumn breeze stirring a pond at sunset. He recombines his elements in a way that never feels forced, and rarely feels tired. Most obviously, he’s sampled Ray Charles in I Got A Woman, and placed his voice over a sparse, jazzy minor-key piece that absolutely should not work. But it does, and the effects are stunning.

No, Space Is Only Noise is not for the dance floor; it seems crafted exclusively for quiet evenings in the living room or the library. Opener Être is a found sound collage of water lapping against a shore as French voices giggle and a menacing narrator discusses the transient nature of a body floating in the water. This chilling introduction leads into Colomb, a slow-building thinker built on pinging synths, sonar-like, and windy clavichord over laid-back hand-claps and a sampled French vocal refrain. There’s a danger of relegating this to background music, but again, it’s so intellectually charged, it demands attention, even in its sparseness.

The title track is chamber pop; Too Many Kids Finding Rain In The Dust brushes briefly with legitimate techno before sighing its way back to quiet contemplation over frenzied strings, and a surprisingly melodic backbeat section with swirling dust-bowl guitar reverberations. Balance Her In Between Your Eyes is lovelorn and fleeting in its flighty vocal falsetto. Specters Of The Future incorporates jazz and funk elements over a shuffling beat.

Of course it’s pointless to search for highlights. Space Is Only Noise is best experienced as a whole. Jaar mixes his sounds in unexpected ways and sets them up for interaction, and while the music he creates is weird and challenging, it’s never unlikable or pretentious. It’s easy to say this is an impressive debut full-length by such a young producer – and indeed it is an impressive debut full-length by a surprisingly young new talent – but that would be pandering. Space Is Only Noise is a staggering work of great brilliance that envelops the listener in its own off-centre world for a while. And given how crowded the dance floor’s gotten lately, this is certainly a good thing.

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More on Nicolas Jaar
Nicolas Jaar @ Roundhouse, London
Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise