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Janet Feder - THIS CLOSE

01-20-2016 | By Marc Phillips | Issue 83


I've told this story before, so bear with me.

I first met Janet Feder at the 2012 California Audio Show in San Francisco. That was the show that marked the US debut of the KEF LS50 loudspeaker—I know that because I supplied the Unison Research amplification that powered those amazing little Halloween-colored monitors. Janet walked quietly into the room and handed me an LP and asked if I could play it for her.

I had no idea that when Janet asked me to play her record, it really was her record, a new LP pressing of her Songs with Words. I was so thrilled with her request that I made her presence known in the somewhat crowded room, and I played the first track—a spare, unusual opening track titled "Heater." The beautifully spacious sound immediately intrigued me, even though I sensed that the Diana Krall-friendly room was getting restless with the avant-garde nature of Janet's prepared guitar, which derives its unique nature from small metal rings that she places on the strings. Still, I chased her down the hallway after she left and asked where I could buy the LP. She gave me the room number and I made good on my promise.

Three-and-a-half years later, I still get emails from Janet talking about her latest projects, performances and whatnot. For the most part, she's heavily into hi-rez downloads—I have one semi-abandoned hi-rez program on my laptop that contains nothing but the odd tracks I've downloaded from her website since we met. But my follow-up question for her has always been the same: when are you going to cut another LP?

I asked for two reasons. First, I'm selfish in that it's much more fun to receive an LP from an artist than a digital download. Second, Songs with Words represents one of the finest modern LP pressings I've ever heard—preternaturally quiet and monumentally spacious due to a novel arrangement of 32 microphones placed strategically around Janet as she played. Every once in a while I receive an LP from a small independent artist or label, presumably from a limited pressing of 500 to 1000, and I'm impressed that the grooves are clean and the sound quality is far better than what you might get from a major label. But Songs with Words sounded ridiculously good—especially considering that it cost only $20 instead of the normal $30-$50 you'd pay for one of those audiophile pressings.


A few weeks ago, my patience was rewarded. Janet had been promising me an LP version of her new album, TH I S C L O S E, for quite some time, and it arrived in time for the holidays. After just a couple of listens, I decided it was the finest piece of music I'd heard in 2015, and I picked it as my favorite album of the year in the annual critics' picks at Perfect Sound Forever. I told Janet that I was moving it to the head of my review pile because I wanted to get the word out. But then Thanksgiving happened. And Christmas. And CES. Fortunately, T H I S C L O S E was waiting for me when I returned from Vegas, propped up against my equipment rack as a gentle reminder to get the lead out.


I'm no less impressed right now than I was when I first heard it. When I think of her music, I think of a tremendous stillness that crouches in the periphery. There are tiny things happening in her music, small sounds in big spaces, a calm reinforced by her sweet, honest and carefully moderated vocals. When I first listened to Songs with Words, I found myself drawn to those empty spaces in her music because they provided a safe perspective for wrapping my mind around the unique sound of her prepared guitar. With this new album, however, there is even more going on—even in the quietest moments. It's a deep, buried soundscape, something that might remind you of the studio concoctions of an ambient performer if not for Janet's insistence that everything you hear is borne from "magnetic tape, wood, tubes, wires and Janet's things."

Upon first listen, T H I S C L O S E provides a more potent first impression than Songs with Words—this is the Janet Feder album that might have won over more of those audiophiles in that hotel room back in San Francisco. While the former album was more of an avenue for Janet to explore the sound of her prepared guitar and share those discoveries with her audience, T H I S C L O S E is more succinct and coherent in structure, with songs that are more like songs and less like sonic landscapes. That doesn't mean I'm implying that these songs are more "accessible" or even "poppy," but rather they are more confident in expressing their themes and ideas.

"Crows," for example, opens the album with dreamy, loose-limbed psychedelia that reminds me a little of David Gilmour's early acoustic songs for Pink Floyd. "Ticking Time Bomb," adorned with sultry flourishes from bass clarinet and accordion behind Janet's seemingly recalcitrant banjo, pushes the slightly melancholy idea that if she was a doctor, she'd "cut you open/take that ticking time bomb/explode it in the open air." The song ends with the sound of her smashing all types of objects—has she determined that calm acquiescence to her partner's foibles is the wrong approach, or has that bomb exploded silently?


Despite my insistence that T H I S C L O S E is all about the songs, it seems somewhat surprising that Janet only sings on three of the album's nine cuts. The remaining six tracks are instrumentals, with four of them improvisations with such complementary performers as pianist Paul Fowler, guitarist Mike Yach and percussionists Todd Bilsborough and Amy Shelley. Still, her melodies are strong and far less experimental which gives her more spontaneous ideas drive and momentum. If you listen to this album in the same session as Songs with Words, you'll certainly hear more similarities than differences—she partnered with the same production team of Mike Yach and Joe Shepard at Immersive Studios in Boulder, Colorado, home of the world's largest SONOMA recording system. But there's more focus and more beauty than ever before, making this quiet masterpiece something to treasure.

T H I S C L O S E is available on vinyl from Janet's Bandcamp site at https://janetfeder.bandcamp.com/album/thisclose. You can also get it in a CD/SACD hybrid format, or via MP3 or FLAC downloads.

[Note that you can also purchase Janet Feder's album as a DSD download in stereo/multichannel from SuperHirez.com