It takes two

Windy & Carl's ambient, celestial-waxing pairing isn't as blissful as it seems


Whether one thinks of them as a dreamy drone duo who happen to be married or a married couple who happens to make dreamy drone music, Windy & Carl endure. Their first release, the Instrumentals EP (Burnt Hair), dates back to 1994; while most American guitars were tuned down for grunge's payday, Windy & Carl waxed celestial.

Spacey drones are now in fashion, but Windy & Carl's influence remains relatively unsung, in spite of their being one of the Kranky label's flagship acts. Perhaps it's the duo's Michigan roots, since ambient music fans are often swayed by Eurocentric cravings. Whatever the case, their prodigious oeuvre now swells with several earthily-titled monolithic albums (1995's Portal on Ba Da Bing; 1997's Antarctica on Darla; 1998's Depths and 2001's Consciousness on Kranky) and enough compilation appearances and singles to supply a triple-CD set (2002's Introspection on Blue Flea).

I first plunged in with Depths, though it took me the better part of a year to make it through its viscous 70 minutes in one sitting. Windy & Carl's music is like a mood ring: its timbre is responsive to emotional currents, some of them hidden. More often than not, dark thoughts surface after 30 or 40 minutes. This makes me suspect that many of those critics who fling adjectives like "blissful" and "glittering" at their records have only dipped their toes in the maelstrom. At the very least, these seem overly simplistic adjectives for music that tilts towards tumult as it limns stillness.

There is a common misconception that ambient music is intrinsically passive or inert: this, in fact, is only true of bad ambient music, of which there is plenty (unsurprisingly, it often accompanies tactless interior design). Windy & Carl, like the kosmische innovators before them, realign one's sense of space rather than simply flattering it. This process occurs at the periphery of consciousness — trying to put it to words tests the limits of music writing. It's clear, however, that much of the Michigan duo's mastery comes down to a well-honed understanding of texture and scale. In a typical jam, the gigantic crest of a thousand distortion pedals curls around the intimate pluck of a lonely guitar in an arresting, Rothko-like frieze. Time is adjourned; foreground and background drift by one another in the fog.

The durational aspect of Windy & Carl's music has two aspects: lost in the length of any one given piece, we also feel ourselves afloat on the broader body of work, a 16-year drone. This superimposed condition, with every conversation dissolving into all other conversations, should be familiar to anyone who has been inside a long-term relationship. Ambient music implies a porous self, and thus has interesting applications for a couple. Watching A Woman Under the Influence (1974) a few weeks ago, I was struck by the way John Cassavetes draws us into Nick (Peter Falk) and Mabel Longhetti's (Gena Rowlands) nonverbal communication: the nonsense utterances, whispers, and cries. Something similar happens in Windy & Carl's echo chamber of tone, feedback and voice.

For all the songs about love, how many actually document its dormant time and space? John and Yoko, Nelson Angelo and Joyce, and Mimi and Richard Fariña's works spring to mind. Windy & Carl's latest, Songs for the Broken Hearted (Kranky, 2008), belongs in any such pantheon. Their albums have always been "home recordings," but Dedications to Flea (Brainwashed Recordings, 2005), the duo's disc-long contemplation of their dog's death, marked a new degree of intimacy.

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