The stark beauty and minimalism reflected in the cover art for mr. soon's (a.k.a. Joe Jakob) outstanding CD, places in arizona (lower case intentional), wonderfully captures the unique and captivating blend of electronica beats with smooth ambient washes and tones that dominate the recording. Here is one of those CDs that hooked me on first listening - in fact, on hearing the first two tracks, I knew I was in for a special ride. Seldom can an aritst try something this audacious (in theory) and turn out music so perfectly balanced between the organic and the cybertronic. places in arizona is perhaps the first recording of southwest American desert chill-out ambient music.
The thirteen tracks are, for the most part, short in duration, with only one overtly lengthy piece (the second to last "echo canyon" which clocks in at eighteen-minutes). One of the delights of the CD, which increases the more you listen to it, is how evolutionary even the shorter pieces are. Jakob has a knack for switching directions in midjourney, yet doing it so smoothly that the transition is not just seamless but feels...natural! The first seven songs, in particular, employ this device to great effect - to the point that some songs had me grinning as the musical steering wheel took me from funky driving beats to cyber-cool espionage ambience.
On later tracks, there is also some exploration of quasi tribal-ambient territory, but mostly, the music on places in arizona puts me in mind of cruising through (where else) the deserts of Arizona, preferably at sundown or at night in something like a Lexus convertible. No throaty hopped-sports car for this trip. The grooves are slick and smooth, the acceleration comes on like gradual warp drive, not like Detroit muscle. The synths and washes are always there to cushion you from the highway's rough spots.
Album highlights abound, especially though the first eight or so tracks (although everything here is recommended). "arcosanti" opens with mysterious shimmering bell-tones (nice sly touch there!), but soon propels you into sunnier territory with cruising speed drum and bass beats and cheery reverbed electric piano and twinkling synth notes. "ventana" goes from drifting ambient washes to funky back beats on high hat, bass drum, and bongos to Spy Hunter coolness through snaky bell tones and synths. "gila bend" offers up jangly ghost-townish guitars in a moody desert atmospheric piece that folds gradually into FAT bass-heavy grooves that then blend in ethereal spacy synths, conjuring up an image of the haze from the midday sun as one gazes out over an expanse of rock and cacti. Some other tracks are more ambient in feel, like the haunting "highway 2" and its billowing washes of synths, soft as the evening breeze, yet morphing into a nicely propulsive electronica beat-driven piece. "quartzite" is spacy synths, sounding like a chorus of cosmic pipe organs, played on top of mellow echoed and sustained electric piano notes.
Fans of more traditional desert ambience (from artists like Steve Roach and Biff Johnson) will enjoy the longer tracks like "second mesa" (wavery shimmering synths that undulate with heat rising from the desert floor while tribal rhythmic elements weave a primal web of hand percussion beats), or the slightly darker "nazlini" and its minor key synths, guitar-like tones, and restrained tribal pulses. "low mountain" is spooky and forlorn, blending plaintive guitar with synths. And., of course, the expansive dark tribal-ambient "echo canyon" (sounding, at times, like Roach meets o yuki conjugate) will delight desert ambient fans as well, although the length of this track, combined with the artist's talent to evolve the music considerably, means you should expect a few twists and turns along the way.
So, whether you groove to the kicky beats of drum and bass, lay back to the hip cool of cyber-lounge, or tread through the darker waters of purer desert ambience via synthesizer chords and washes, Mr. Soon will take you to places in arizona that will delight you with their fun, mystery, and beauty. Without a doubt, one of the top releases of 2002 and, as far as I'm concerned, a must have for serious lovers of the broad category of music that is labeled ambient these days.
review by Bill Binkelman
go back to the top of the page