Review of EC Split 23: Ben Presto and Jeremiah Paddock

The seed of the idea behind any release is often worth getting into, and when it comes to the Electronic Cottage Split series (organized by Hal McGee), the seed is deceptively simple: two artists, selected by Hal himself, go off to produce 30 minutes of material together, developing the release as a partnership. There are 29 installments in this series, which has yielded some surprising and incredible results as these have been coming out. The strength of the series not only relied on the artists involved, but their efforts to work together. If it had been approached randomly, or even with a little less thought, and if even a few of the artists had only phoned it in, then this could have seemed like a shoddy series at best.  

But Hal has sort of buried the lead when it comes to this series, and how these splits have been organized. Because, while they might seem to be odd pairing in a couple cases, what he has done upon closer evaluation is concoct some clever and wonderful pairings with the artists he has selected. This shouldn’t be surprising, as many of the projects that Hal involves himself in are very well thought out, and offer unique music listening opportunities that you just don’t find elsewhere.

On installment #23, of this series, the matching of Ben Presto with Jeremiah Paddock seems to be particularly inspired, and the proof is in the musical pudding we all get to enjoy during this holiday season. While I knew a little about Jeremiah’s music before this release, I was completely new to Ben’s work, an Italian artist who has been working for well over 10 years. Another bonus to this series is that Hal really introduces you to incredible artists from all over the world, and this series seems to really highlight the world-wide flavor of this project. I’m always learning about new avenues to explore in music, and Hal inevitably leads me to places I’m very happy to have visited. 

We open this album with Ben’s homage to film soundtracks, a breathtaking voyage through some of the musical ideas of cinema, while taking them into places that belong, very much, to Presto and their delightful bass playing. There is, in a way, a bit of a story that is developed throughout Ben’s songs. We open with our protagonist having gone through a particularly harrowing psychedelic experience, where they have wound up dead in the end. Not only must they escape the actual life they once led in the mortal world (first by physically leaving, then by spiritually saying goodbye), our protagonist must then bid farewell to the material world entirely, and thus embrace the emptiness of what lies beyond… whatever that might be. Fortunately for us, the metaphor maps nicely over the struggles that we all have in any new beginning, or rebirth, that we might have to go through. I’m also reminded of the “Black Blotter” episode of Fringe, for some reason: that same kind of psychedelic experience we are prone to having if we start having a “bad trip.”

“Farewell” stands out among these tunes, as it not only breaks the format of the rest, but does not lean on Ben’s bass playing and synth lines to create the brooding, atmospheric pallets that would make Mr. Carpenter proud, for sure. These songs all feel of a piece after you’ve been through them once, and I can’t imagine how you could listen to them separately, now. Presto’s performances and playing on these songs is superb, and while these are not discordant or even that “noisy” compared to some releases in this series, these songs are certainly only skirting the edges of popular music. And yet, they could very much live near the world of popular music fairly comfortably, on a movie soundtrack, for example. Overall, if I had to pick, I would say my faves are “Escape From New York,” and, “Nothing Out There,” just for the gloominess that they both evoke.

While some trips can be ominous, there is something a little wistful about the way that Jeremiah gets into a car with his guitar, and goes on a somewhat pleasant drive. Certainly, like on drives 5, 12, 14 and 15 in this collection, we hear some of the sense of foreboding and anxiety that this regular, routine trip can cause our protagonist, but while we are still on a journey into something that might be scary if we dwell too much on what’s going on in the world outside of the car, inside the car we get to hear Jeremiah’s dedication to trying to find the ways that we can endure this particular trip, through offering us some of the lighter thoughts that we can entertain through a guitar. 

And it is very, very fun. Jeremiah’s guitar playing takes center stage on these drives, and it is something to behold. While these are loops and other studio compositions, they highlight some of the best kinds of playing that Jeremiah has to offer, and gives a dizzying insight into they way their mind works, musically. This offers a great cross-section of Jeremiah’s style, and I find these songs endlessly listenable, and I would say that I could probably play this comfortably at a party with a bunch of squares and some would probably even start tapping their toes. It is incredibly catchy experimental music. 

I’m still working out how to interpret the final drive. It doesn’t have the same wistfulness of some songs, nor the lurking threat that other’s portray. We’ve arrived, somewhere, and it is dramatic. But how should we feel about it? How should we interpret the sense of joy and the sense of horror, both competing for attention? Perhaps we are merely meant to acknowledge it, and find a way to try and start over tomorrow, without feeling dread.

What I like about this release is that is doesn’t feel too “weird,” in spite of the deep weirdness that is at work here, too. These are very beautifully written songs, played very straightforward and with heartfelt attention to detail, then well mixed by people trying to create a total package. The performances are strong, and they don’t muck about too much with studio gloss to cover up the imperfections. This music is what it is, no frilly extras or filigree around the edges, and as a result, they work wonderfully together.

I can imagine that others who are not precisely into experimental music could find this a very good entry point into what this kind of music can do when it isn’t strictly noise. As someone who likes to find the edges of what experimental is and isn’t, this release fits into that territory perfectly. 

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