By Ché Salgado
Artist: Jefre Cantu-Ledesma
Album: In Summer
Released: August 7th, 2016
Label: Geographic North
There I was, basking in the last moments of my menial albeit very chill summer job at Menchie’s, thinking of some words to say for an equally menial record. Nothing was coming, and the review was due in eighteen hours, eight of which would be dedicated to sleep, another four dedicated to things other than the review. Resigned to the inevitable 6 hour slog I usually pull every other Friday from 11 to 5, I got in my car, took a last long look at the House that Froyo Built, and threw on Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s latest record, In Summer. And somehow what wasn’t obvious before suddenly became so; labored words for Add Agency’s latest record could wait because In Summer, a revelation for those largely unacquainted with drone and ambient music, is a record worth writing about, reading about, listening to, and talking about.
If you’re unfamiliar, and you probably are, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma is a multi-instrumentalist based out of San Francisco and an active member in the community that’s based around his craft, the drone/ambient music community. He remains active by acting as label boss for the highly regarded Root Strata label, which has released music from the likes of Grouper and the always great, always puzzling, Oneohtrix Point Never. Additionally, Cantu-Ledesma remains active by playing in a slew of bands around San Francisco and collaborating with other like-minded musicians, a short list of which includes, in order from least obscure to most obscure: Tarantel, Colophon, The Alps, The Holy See and Sea Zombies. But perhaps the most recognized music that Cantu-Ledesma has been putting out (at least in recent years) has been the drone/ambient music he’s been releasing since 2005 under his own name. With over 30 records under various labels it’s hard to understand why “Jefre Cantu-Ledesma” isn’t a name you’ve at least heard in passing. But to understand that is also to understand how inaccessible ambient music can be. In its purest form it’s never the centerpiece, to most of us, when music is played, it’s the focus of attention, not with ambient music, this is a genre where pioneering records contain nearly twenty minute tracks that, optimally, are meant to be played in airports. The music is meant to augment the mood or atmosphere, not form it, and even if it were the centerpiece of a situation, you’d never know it.
But that’s where Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, not really breaks from tradition, I doubt any of the musicians who make music similar to Cantu-Ledesma consider any sort of tradition when they make their music (save for the “beat-less” question that arises around Aphex Twin’s two ambient volumes), but in regards to accessibility, Cantu-Ledesma truly is doing the most. Probably not consciously, but this is the most accessible drone record I fathom there could be, the songs are the length of pop songs (the whole thing is under thirty minutes), there are “beats”, beautiful and evocative drones, and some moments that are downright catchy.
Album opener “Love’s Refrain” fades in and grows in intensity as the track progresses until it comes to an ear-splitting climax only to cut out to make way for the next track, “Little Dear Isle”, which employs found sounds and glitch sounds that make up the body of the track. You could be challenged to say it’s not actually music but under these sounds is what really moves the song, a low organ that gives the songs it’s most valuable quality; an atmospheric ambience. At the center of the record is the title track, it begins much in the same way as “Love’s Refrain” and you can imagine that for the first half of the track it would look just like a solid rectangle in a DAW but then, just as “Love’s Refrain” did, it cuts out and the Cantu-Ledesma again employs found sounds (an engine starting?) and glitch sounds, these ones fairly Oval-esque, if you’ve ever listened intently to “Do While”, you’ll know the sound.
The track “Blue Nudes (I-IV)” comes next and it’s strikingly similar to “Love’s Refrain” but while the tracks appear to be clones, even down to the drum beat, the subtle melodies set the two tracks apart. Make a note, if ever anyone tells you this record is bad because “it all sounds the same”, they’re not really listening.
Finally, we come to album closer, “Prelude”. Another track employing found sounds, it starts off immediately with a harsh hiss interspersed with more glitch sounds and audio of a woman talking and an excited dog. It progresses into deliciously distorted dour piano and ends with silence, an amusing end to a record so enamored with pure droning sound.
What ought to be noted is the cover, how Cantu-Ledesma describes these songs as snapshots, a collection of photographs, a window into his life. And this is more fodder for the claim the In Summer despite eschewing conventional ways of conveying emotion in music, is one of the most intensely emotional albums of 2016. If anything, just the questions it leaves us with are enough to make heady assumptions about the implied emotional value of this music. All these found sounds for instance, it beckons questions about where they came from, what they mean to Cantu-Ledesma, where was he walking? Who was that woman? Was that his dog? The ultimate question of what all these things mean to the man who put them in his music evoke comparisons between his life and ours, they cause us to think of our own private moments, our loved ones, our possessions. This coupled with emotionally evocative musical moments make In Summer a wonderful access point for anyone looking to find out what ambient and drone music is all about and how it’s just as equipped as pop music to convey the things people want the music they listen to to convey.