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Various Artists
Pod Tune Volume: Ambient Dustin Krcatovich , August 14th, 2015 15:19

Humpback whales are something like the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of the animal kingdom: their sound is plaintive, mysterious, and timelessly beautiful, and people are always trying to hitch a wagon to their star (though unlike the late Pakistani singer, I don't think a humpback whale has ever sullied its reputation by working with Eddie Vedder). I myself have owned two LP copies of Songs Of The Humpback Whale for extended periods of time. I eventually gave one copy up, but only because I realised I also had it on cassette and mp3. It's a lovely sound, and one I'm sure I've worked into some half-baked four track experiment at some point. Who could resist?

It's a tricky thing, though. While a fine complement to weird noise, applying humpback whale songs to more structured music can threaten to become silly or mawkish, if not downright hilarious: witness, for example, Paul Winter's 'Ocean Dream', Andre Kostelanetz's 'And God Created Great Whales', or any number of syrupy New Age recordings. When one puts the whale's song to the fore in such pieces, the hypocrisy is almost palpable: it gives lip service to whales and their habitat even as the plastic runoff from reproduction is basically helicoptered direct to one of those Texas-sized islands of plastic ocean detritus dotting the Pacific.

Pod Tune is a new humpback-themed compilation, and its tracks could be most conveniently bunched under the unwieldy ambient umbrella, with every one incorporating whale songs into its palette. Some tracks walk the tightrope over the cheese river, but overall it delivers. Luminaries like Loscil, William Basinski and Jacob Kirkegaard take to the raw materials with ease, and the whale sounds blend satisfyingly with their own. Many tracks here are electronic and free-floating, but there's also room for everything from traditional acoustic instruments and human/whale vocal duets in the mix. Its sequencing is quite deft given its variety, and it's worth saying that some of the relative duds might still reveal themselves over time.

Besides, Pod Tune has its heart is in the right place. The producers truly want to draw attention and empathy to the whales and their diminishing habitat, and to humanity's apparent disdain for the resources which sustain that habitat. Proceeds from the album will even go to ocean conservation organisations.

Though there has been much research done on humpback whales and their songs, we still know so little. One of Pod Tune’s producers, Harold Linde, notes that, "in an era when we are sending private rockets to the International Space Station and landing probes on passing comets, Pod Tune serves as a gentle reminder that within Earth's vast and unexplored oceans, there live enormously intelligent beings who are just waiting for us to engage them in conversation." The last part strikes me as wishful thinking — why would whales give a shit about humanity, except as an encroaching threat? — but it's true that there's a lot we don't understand about the briny deep and its inhabitants. Whether or not this album can help foster significant change in this regard, it will at least send both finance and some important attention in that direction, and is a fine diversion besides.

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