It’s become increasingly apparent that the Chilean-American Nicolas Jaar doesn’t like being categorized. Even the earliest releases from this enigmatic musician, on Wolf + Lamb and Circus Company, had a disregard for stratification. For Jaar, house and techno were just hues to apply to a kaleidoscopic palette. His use of found sounds, dub studio techniques, and chiming guitars all contributed to a style apart, a category of one. But in recent years, he’s stepped away from the dance music idiom for the most part, releasing experimental music through his labels Clown & Sunset and Other People, and collaborating with guitarist Dave Harrington as the band Darkside, generally making whatever the hell he wants.
This auteur strategy extends to his new, second full-length record, the eagerly awaited Sirens, an ambitious and eclectic album that packs tons of ideas into its runtime and manages to pull them all off with a great deal of style. There’s a lot to digest here. "Killing Time" crackles with his trademark, lush samples and ambient noises, its tinkling piano interjections reminiscent of Alice Coltrane or Laraaji. Midway through its 11 minutes, it morphs into a doleful ballad, Jaar’s tender vocal merging with a slow beat. "The Governor" marries distorted drums and effects with layers of crackling interference, piano and treated saxophone, while "Leaves" is a delicate ambient piece, its samples (of what sounds like a father and son talking in Spanish) adding a transporting quality.
The centerpiece though is the superb, affecting "No," a tune which deserves to be a huge radio hit but will probably remain the secret of Jaar’s (many) fans. On this track Jaar sings in Spanish; his voice has become a hugely versatile instrument, tender one minute, forceful the next. It accompanies a cumbia beat, a nod to his Chilean roots, with a bittersweet melody best experienced through headphones to get the full spine-tingling effect. It’s probably the best thing he’s done so far.
"Three Sides of Nazareth" is completely different—a menacing electro-punk chug that sounds not too dissimilar to New York duo Suicide, rockabilly transmuted via live drums and needling overdriven synths. From this track, you can tell Jaar has absorbed a sense of performance and theatre from his time in the band Darkside, and also that "Three Sides of Nazareth" will be a winner when he plays it live.
On the closing "History Lesson," he taps into the subtly forward-thinking electronic ballad territory that James Blake and recently Bon Iver have made their own, but the truth is Nicolas Jaar is far more interesting and enjoyable to listen to than either of those artists. Nor, do you expect, would they employ samples of pigeon coos in their tracks. That’s the joy of Jaar, on an incredible album that deserves to win him a new army of fans.
01 Killing Time
02 The Governor
05 Three Sides of Nazareth
06 History Lesson