Graded on a Curve:
Blue Glass,
Jardin des Étoiles

Seattle’s Blue Glass is headed by Michael Shunk, his outfit having debuting in 2019 with the album Pale Mirror. It was a set undeniably impacted by UK goings on between 30 to 40 years’ time ago (you know, the 1980s), and its contents remain solidly likeable. But with Jardin des Étoiles, Shunk’s approach has undertaken a considerable detour, specifically into ambient territory. This is by no means a complete break from his prior work however, as guitar remains part of the design. Available now digitally, the limited edition (500 copies on double orange wax) ships out August 6 through the Two Roads label.

In giving Pale Mirror a short review a little over two years ago in this very column, I was impressed, if not blown away, by Michael Shunk’s adeptness at conjuring the moodier side of the ’80s Brit post-punk experience while maintaining urgency and heft, and with better than average songs. Cited influences included The Smiths, New Order, and Durutti Column, though sticking out to my ear was The Cure and The Church (who I realize aren’t from the UK, but neither are The Chills, who also made that list of influences). Also, in the drowsy near-rasp of Shunk’s voice, Pale Mirror recalled the Psychedelic Furs.

But what a difference a pandemic can make. There will be no comparisons to Richard Butler this time out, as Jardin des Étoiles is a record without vocals. The scoop is that after Covid scuttled a West Coast tour, Shunk opted for a shift of gears into what’s described as a meditative, healing zone, as he took additional inspiration from the films of director Chris Marker (La Jetee, A.K., A Grin Without a Cat, Take Five, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich) and Shunk’s son’s interest in the stars up above (the album’s title translates to Garden of the Stars).

The impact of Marker, who is frankly one of the greatest of all filmmakers, and in particular Shunk’s love of the masterful essay film Sans Soleil, is a promising sign that Jardin des Étoiles will unfold with positivity. And for that matter, so is taking inspiration from a childhood fascination with galaxies in the night sky (very relatable, as I shared this interest as a youth).

And yet, Jardin des Étoiles presented such a sharp departure from Pale Mirror’s song-based foundation that, when coupled with the increasing prevalence of ambient music on the contemporary scene, I couldn’t shake a nagging suspicion that Pale Mirror’s follow-up would unwind as an underwhelming quarantine digression.

For the album, Shunk utilized a Roland RS-505 and a Roland Juno 60, and played his guitar. From this fairly basic setup, “Jardin des Étoiles I” opens with electronic-edged gliding reverberations complemented with swells of guitar that help to conjure an increasingly and wholly appropriate sci-fi atmosphere. Along the way, a hint of Robert Fripp suggests the middle ground between his two 1970s collabs with Brian Eno.

So far so okay, but “Jardin des Étoiles II” changes the pace substantially, beginning with a strummed guitar figure enhanced with hovering synth that extends for the duration of the piece. Instead of bringing ambient to my mind, it’s reminiscent of the contemplative instrumental handiwork of an ’80s guitar-pop auteur, the kind of thing that would’ve landed on a B-side of a 45 on Cherry Red.

Slowly rising up in volume, “Jardin des Étoiles III” momentarily lingers in a zone betwixt Fripp-Eno and the Hearts of Space scene, but then works up a soaring cinematic expressiveness, the soundscape ascending and declining (too slow to be a swirl) and peppered with short, occasionally barbed, interjections of synth.

But “Jardin des Étoiles IV” shifts the timbre of those synths, as the track offers slowly bulging, almost spongy resonances that recall vintage electric keyboards and especially those churchy chord organs. As matters progress, Shunk delivers sharp, counterbalancing tendrils of guitar shimmer that peak in the track’s midsection. But in the latter portion, the focus deepens on those synth tones as they eventually echo the achy tranquility of late Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. As the set’s longest piece at nine minutes, it’s a standout.

“Jardin des Étoiles V” begins with a similar rising and falling motif gradually differentiated by a thrust that is recognizably New Age, but with a “wonders of the great outdoors” (or outer space) vibe rather than blissful inner consciousness. Contrasting, “Jardin des Étoiles VI” reengages with the moodier side of Shunk’s post-punky influences and justifies the comparisons to Factory and 4AD.

Closer “Jardin des Étoiles VII” gets much nearer to the drifting ambience heard as part of the ’90s electronic underground. As it unfurled, I thought of both Windy and Carl and Wolfgang Voigt, and that’s swank. With those fears of the disappointing nicely nixed, the question is now, where does Michael Shunk take Blue Glass from here?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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