Released five years ago this autumn, Rachel’s’ systems/layers is one of those rare albums which ineffably nails a moment in time, not by literal reference to events, places or people (in fact, there is only one actual song’ with lyrics among its nineteen nonetheless affecting essays) but in its ability to capture a quintessence of feeling, a singular pervading atmosphere. No matter that its procession of see-sawing strings, lyrical pianos, opaque electronics and unsettling field recordings impacted negligibly on the wider American consciousness; it remains a redolent madeleine of a record — autumn 2003 distilled in a digipak — and an implicit counterweight to the erroneous ‘mission accomplished’ zeitgeist in which main street USA then so blithely bathed.
Launched in the early ’90s by Jason Noble, sometime guitarist with noted Louisville math rockers Rodan, Rachel’s (originally Rachel’s Halo, apparently in honour of his virtuously dependable, so named, Toyota Corolla) quickly evolved into a floating collective based around Noble, gifted pianist Rachel Grimes and Juilliard-educated violinist Christian Frederickson. Developing a signature sound that was equal parts post-rock and chamber etude, they became fixtures in the same ‘9os instrumental milieu that simultaneously berthed the likes of Tortoise, Labradford and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Eliding conservatoire abstemiousness with tousled indie cool, Rachel’s toured like a rock band, garnering a loyal international fanbase intrigued and beguiled by an aesthetic which, while it occasionally erred too far toward chocolate box decorousness, at its best suggested Slint re-imagined by Gavin Bryars and Philip Glass.
While the fin de siècle post rock scene waxed and waned, Rachel’s released a quartet of ever more confident, exquisitely packaged albums, of
which lilting, piano-caressed theatrical score Music For Egon Schiele and the dulcet Kentucky nocturnes of Selenography endure as benchmarks of baroque Americana — a symphonic counterpoint to the arcane songcraft of another feted Louisvillan, Will Oldham.
At the turn of the millennium, Rachel’s released Full On Night, a collaboration with San Franciscan musique concrete mavericks Matmos, which decisively banished the chocolate box while demonstrating a hitherto unexplored facility for electronic dissonance. A subsequent project, whose compositions were inspired by the history and lore of the Empire State Building, began with the group “running around New York with a DAT recorder”, interviewing Manhattanites about their city’s iconic architecture. “People often wanted to compare and make very poetic and critical comments about how the skyline in New York had changed, or share personal stories of seeing the different buildings through their windows at night”, reveals Jason Noble, recalling the genesis of what would eventually become the systems/layers masterpiece. “They talked about wedding proposals, job interviews, amazing things… The buildings sparked a lot of nostalgia and memory in almost everyone we interviewed.”
Galvanised by the architecturally-themed vox pops, the project was developing into a fully-fledged album when, in autumn 2001, epochal geopolitics suddenly interceded, recontextualising their architectural concept as a stroke, as Noble recalls: “Beyond our immediate human reaction, and the concern for many of our friends living in the city at the time time [of 9/11], we suddenly had this immense other reality… The events in NYC (and DC and Pennsylvania) gave Americans and the world a sense of deep anger and grief, but also sparked an amazing outpouring of kindness, a refusal of hatred and desire for pure revenge. NYC was now placed in the central discussion.”
Tying a record specifically to the catastrophic events of September 2001 proved that bit too literal, however, and the model inexorably developed over time to embrace broader notions of twenty-first century urban existence. “Early in 2002, Rachel Grimes had named a song ‘systems/layers'”, Noble recalls. “And we all got into it, especially with the alien ring of the name and the slash mark.” The title seemed to set the tone for an extended body of work. “We often sat for hours in a huge group trying to re-imagine this city project. How could we deal with urban decay, or isolation, or even harder themes in a very harsh time?”
“I’m very thankful that we didn’t try to make a specific ‘elegy’ of city life, or one that pushed the more horrific realities”, Rachel Grimes reflects. “We intended to convey a sense of hope and reflection… trying to capture that evanescent place that the individual makes for themselves in moments every day — the inner sanctum amidst the outer chaos.”
The “huge group” now included a flotilla of additional orchestral players and the personnel of New York’s SITI Dance Company, with whom Rachel’s were invited to collaborate in early 2002. The prospect of a music-based theatrical piece now dawned. The prospect of ‘dancing about architecture’ proved catalytic for the group, as Christian Frederickson recalls: “The SITI Co. and their technique of structured improvisation called ‘The Viewpoints’, changed the way we went about making music. It was a surprisingly natural way to think laterally and, most importantly, play with an incredible group of artists. We’d set up a couple of tables of instruments in front of the stage and then try to open our eyes and ears as wide as possible… On a more mundane level, the structure of the theatrical systems/layers had a large impact on the album. We finished the album before the show went up, but the sequence of the first two-thirds of the record is almost identical to the show. And the structure of [sublime string quartet, piano and drums study] ‘Water from the Same Source’, for example, directly corresponds to the movement sequence it accompanies in the show — we made it to fit.”
A handful of theatrical systems/layers performances would take place in the wake of the album’s release but, as Frederickson suggests, SITI Co’s involvement also proved crucial to the texture and atmosphere of the album. Jason Noble elaborates: “The directors Barney O’Hanlon and Darron L. West, and the whole SITI Co. and their students, all began writing, improvising, examining ways to think of city life, not just architecture. We all shared text, weird stories, whatever… It was basically a kick in the ass for the band to make more new music and try to be more creative.”
The lateral thinking would also introduce a litany of field recordings to the project; the band’s own and also a cache of home recordings collated from all over the US (and a s far afield as Japan and Sheffield, England) elicited via the Rachel’s fan site. That meant everything from singing road bridges and humming tumble dryers to ice cream chimes, to drone of a phosphorescent bulb, half-obscured snatches of conversation… “The tape trading and opening of the gates to any of the folks on our band mailing list, or friends, or whoever was interested, was an attempt to make systems have a hybrid, world ambience,” Rachel Grimes explains. “We felt it was important to include text in many languages, in multiple cities, and it wasn’t possible for the band to personally collect it all. So we got lucky and kind folks shared their travel recordings, homemade sounds and some very personal archive material.”
The eclectic mosaic of resources helped define the record’s narrative character, Grimes clarifies. “From the collaborations with SITI and the submitted tape materials, we eventually saw a need to tell an immigrant or visitor’s story — someone to be the guide through an unfamiliar place. I don’t really know how much of this all comes across in the album, but the live theatrical performance was pretty direct.”
“We didn’t want to make a dystopian statement about how ugly and bad the city is — we wanted to make something about hope”, Frederickson affirms. “Cities collect a lot of the good of humanity as well as the bad, and nature is always present too, often in smaller, more precious quantities. There’s no question that cities can be loud, overwhelming, ugly, but we wanted to talk about the other side of things. Sometimes you need earplugs to hear that other side, or to stand on top of a tall building at night, but it’s always there.”
Recorded in a number of US university auditoria (mainly because most orthodox recording studios which were capacious enough to accommodate the expanded line-up proved either too expensive or lacked a decent piano) and eventually mixed in Chicago by Shellac’s Bob Weston, the completed systems/layers would fulfil all the band’s vaulting artistic ambitions, to often sublime effect. Despite the disparate sound sources, as an album it’s very much of a piece and no matter how solemn its inspiration, it conveys profound emotion with restraint and equanimity; it is elegiac but never sentimental, poignant rather than maudlin. Yearning, large ensemble pieces like the aforementioned ‘Water from the Same Source’ and the no less Apollonian ‘Esperanza’ are punctuated by lyrical piano sketches, like the Debussy-esque ‘Anytime Soon’ and interludes of, by turns, lulling, pensive or disquieting ambience with titles like ‘Wouldn’t Live Anywhere Else’ and ‘Unclear Channel’. The likes of ‘Moscow Is in the Telephone’ and ‘Expect Delays’, meanwhile, effortlessly conflate mysterious urban vérité ambiences with subtle trace elements of strings or woodwind — an anxious/consoling (or industrial/pastoral) juxtaposition that is the essence of the modern city experience.
There is subtle humour too (to wit, a piece of elegant, Arcadian-sounding cello music given the title ‘Air Conditioning/a closed feeling’, or another track titled drolly, ‘where_have_all_my_files-gone?’) and orthodox song craft in the shape of `Last Things Last’, whose tenderly redemptive lyric (“I hope these last things last/A hook or a flake/To hold on to so you don’t break“) is delivered with exquisite restraint by Floridian chanteuse Shannon Wright against a courtly footfall of piano and cello. Even the lavish sleeve booklet is an eclectic marvel of text and imagery: diagrams, information, poetry, quotations, semi-abstract photography… more systems, more layers, all of it reinforcing the music’s compelling weave of beauty, tension and everyday transcendence.
For all its undeniable radiance, and despite a tranche of hyperbolic reviews (“… an aural survival pack that pulls out moments of delicate beauty from all the shit and cacophony“, eulogised Mojo, “… a sort of Dark Side Of The Moon for the Debussy set,”opined Nude As The News), in commercial terms, systems/layers fared little better than previous Rachel’s albums, selling in healthy numbers to the cognoscenti but failing to cross over to a wider audience. Of course, it was far too subtle and impressionistic to work as a call-to-the-barricades protest album, and the peaceable sentiments it sought to enshrine went unrecognized by a Middle America which lumpenly voted the bellicose Republicans back in, in 2004.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Rachel’s have maintained a low profile since they ceased touring in support of the album in 2005. They remain phlegmatic about the group’s relative lack of recognition, however, as Jason Noble reveals. “I have to appreciate any of our records for what they are, and the memories of the [recording] process. I think about [cellist] Eve [Miller] riding with her cello in a pick-up truck to our first sessions, and eating tacos in Gallup, New Mexico on tour in ’98, and whatever happened in our lives as friends. I see the flaws and all that, have questions about certain songs, but the records were all made as well as we could at the time. I’m still surprised when we get any recognition so, that part is a pleasant shock.”
Will Rachel’s — in “deep hibernation”, as their website unambiguously states — ever be persuaded to make the follow-up to systems/layers? Christian Frederickson remains equivocal. “We certainly never intended systems/layers to be a definitive statement; it was just the project we were working on. As far as a follow-up, I don’t think any of us could say one way or the other.”
Perhaps the against-all-odds optimism and spirit of civic decency at the core of systems/layers will finally find a wider currency in the dawning Obama era. “The USA was, and continues to be, a deeply divided country”, Jason Noble cautions on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. “For some reason introspection, or even questioning anything deeply, is greeted with intense suspicion and often accusations. ‘How dare you liberals in The Supreme Court demand habeas corpus for the detainees at Guantánamo Bay! Why allow these people a chance to speak?’ Here, families are strongly separated over party policies, the War on Terror, the war on non-Christian religions, often while sitting at the same dinner table…”
Noble is explicit about the choices ahead for his country. “Sarah Palin got a laugh and applause at the Republican Convention for saying: ‘My fellow citizens; the American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of personal discovery.’ What the fuck is it supposed to be? A machine-like repetition of ‘We’re always winning’ and ‘We’re the greatest nation on Earth’? When did discussion become weakness in the eyes of half of America? I don’t believe that’s how the majority of people really feel, they’re just told to be afraid of everything beyond an arm’s reach. I truly hope the American public votes for Senator Obama; votes for someone who will value ‘personal discovery’ and evolution, is adaptable and interested in cohabitating this very fragile world.”
Happily, of course, Noble’s wish has now been granted. The dawning of a benevolent Democrat era might yet tempt Rachel’s back into the studio; this time to create a work of untrammelled celebration, perhaps? Even if they never record again, systems/layers will stand as luminous testament to hope and humility and proof positive of art’s ability to transcend grim, reactionary times.
systems/layers is currently available on the Touch & Go/ Quarterstick label