It begins with a familiarly organic sound: the puffing of a harmonica, with clusters of notes blown childishly. Soon a kalimba drops a dizzy patter, then a chunky synth buzzes in the background while a ghostly voice sighs a lamentation.
It's the first track from As Good as Gone, the fourth album from Nudge and their second for Chicago label Kranky. As in their previous work, Nudge pinpoints a border where natural instrumentation meets electronic manipulation, with disorienting and often beautiful results. Nudge is primarily the work of Brian Foote, a former Portlander who played in Fontanelle and has recently worked with Bradford Cox in Atlas Sound. Foote began Nudge in 1998 as a studio project with guests, but since then, the lineup has gravitated around Foote and two other Portland musicians: Honey Owens of Jackie-O Motherfucker and her own solo project Valet; and Paul Dickow, founder of the Community Library label who also performs as electronic artist Strategy.
The idea behind Nudge, Foote says, was "originally, just to expand or explore my studio technique and the possibilities of different kinds of technologies that I was either unfamiliar with or as they became available. I always try to have Paul and Honey involved when the group is working on new music as well as for live performances, when scheduling and geography allows."
Like the music itself, the nature of the collaboration is reliant on technology as well as human contact. "The spark for all the songs come from folks playing in the same room," says Foote. "Nudge albums tend to be a very slow affair. As Good as Gone was worked on for a little over three years, which is about the same length of time as the album before it.
"Most often," Foote continues, "we record jams on physical instrumentation which I edit down to a framework or use to build sampler instruments from. This allows us to manipulate things in a live setting much greater than normal. Then the songs are built up with this kind of exponential improvisation. This is not a technique unique to Nudge, but it's very easy to end up with something that sounds awfully 'computery,' which we go to great lengths to avoid."
Despite the cloak of electronic frippery, the human element of As Good as Gone is never concealed, and the music feels like it inhabits a place of hard-earned meditative peace surrounded by busy distractions. "Two Hands," which may be the closest thing to a pop song on the album, is led by Owens' minimal vocal melody and a stop-and-start dub bassline. The track grows with martial percussion and distorted guitar before expiring with a muted trumpet. "Tito" has the bare skeleton of a new Balearic dance track, but is traced over with clicks and gurgles, and Owens' desolate choirboy vocal. Meanwhile, the slow, brushed snare-drum beat of "Burns Blue" could be part of a torch song, but instead becomes ominously trance-like, with pulsating chords in the background that howl like fierce gusts of wind.
For the Portland show, Jon Pyle of Starving Weirdos and RV Paintings will join the core trio of Foote, Owens, and Dickow. "Aside from our different personal tastes in music, the main influence has always been process, which I'm sure sounds a little stuffy," says Foote. "At the end of the day, though, we're just trying to write far-out tunes."