MP3 Discussion Group: ‘Dustland’ by Gentleman Losers

This week, the MP3 Discussion Group extends its Finnish fixation, by focusing its collective ears on the album Dustland by the duo Gentleman Losers — this following up recent group discussions of two efforts by Finland’s Sasu Ripatti (the new Vladislav Delay album and the new Moritz von Oswald album).

The Losers are the brothers Samu and Ville Kuukka, and Dustland is the group’s second commercial release. Their first album, which was self-titled, was released on the Büro label the back in 2006. Dustland was released earlier this year on City Centre Offices. Like Gentleman Losers, Dustland is a melodic instrumental collection, in which lilting songs meet up with light studio inventions, such as deep reverb and mechanized beats.

More on the band at and Gentleman Losers recently remixed the Bibio track “Haikuesque” for a forthcoming Warp Records release.

Participating in this week’s discussion are:

Lauren Giniger: “I’m an occasional rock-centric music writer who enjoys the opportunity to flex a little mental muscle deconstructing ambient works.”

Julian Lewis: “I write much of Lend Me Your Ears, a UK/Spain-based MP3 blog that appreciates less obvious music.”

Alan Lockett: “I write music reviews and commentary on ambient/drone, the more adventurous end of techno/house, post-dub, and IDM. Based in Bristol, epicentre of the Dub-zone in the Wild West of England, I can mainly be read on and”

Matt Madden: “I’m a cartoonist, comics teacher, and sometime-critic living in Brooklyn. My first love was music and I try to keep a line open to the alternate-universe-me who became a musician. I’ll be channeling him here the next few days.”

Joshua Maremont: “I record as Thermal and pursue my musical and other obsessions in San Francisco.”

The conversation will play out in this post’s comments section. This is by no means a closed discussion, so do feel free to join in.

18 thoughts on “MP3 Discussion Group: ‘Dustland’ by Gentleman Losers

  1. ‘Dustland’ is exactly the sort of record about which I simply forget to write.

    It’s the sort of record that I play dozens of times — at the office, at home, on my iPod in between — and in the process it insinuates itself into my daily listening to the extent that I never stop to actually focus on it, to think about it, to write about it.

    I frequently play ‘Dustland’ alongside albums by Boxhead Ensemble and by Scott Tuma (a Boxhead member). Like those records, Dustland mixes rural American flavors — here, a deeply reverberant electric guitar that would be at home on a Willie Nelson album, a guitar that sounds like Duane Eddy played in slow motion — with ambient techniques. Unlike those albums, which are abstract to the point of being dissolute, ‘Dustland’ is unrepentantly melodic.

    There are moments when ‘Dustland’ goes too far for me — the track “Farandole” introduces a rhythmic cue that’s straight out of a John Carpenter film score, and the synth chimes that circle the psychedelic chords of “Spider Lily” are less subtle than they could be (they’re the sort of thing one might hear in a rote-produced r&b song).

    But otherwise, I’ve come to appreciate what ‘Dustland’ is up to — the way the guitar seeps into the background, the way gentle little sonic elements are as memorable as pop hooks, the way what appears to be a song-like melody is often as much a very repetitive riff — all of which is to say, in my imagination ‘Dustland’ has come to be understood as the best film score that Angelo Badalamenti never got around to composing.

  2. I had not heard about Gentleman Losers prior to this recording, but some cursory research showed this was their second release. As I was listening I had wondered if the second guitar part was overdubbed. This record is pretty slight. I could see one person easily putting it together as it boils down to two interweaving guitar parts (one for rhythm, the second one for a little bit of sound), the occasional synthesized keyboard back, and the beats on Bonetown Boys. I was almost relieved to hear those backing beats. The guitars do distort throughout, but it’s very gentle.

    I think I’m really uneasy about this record. It’s so melodic, so pretty that I fear it is a thin line separating it from some odious New Age twinkling. It wouldn’t actually be too out of place to hear an overdubbed flute on this somewhere.

    I also thought of Mogwai right off the bat. Honey Bunch sounds like Mogwai warming up to some epic guitar crescendos, but it just stops when Mogwai would be about to take off. As much as I am partial to epic instrumental post-rock, I am kind of glad that Honey Bunch and the rest didn’t become that. That’s a whole other set of musical clichés it would seem to be easy fall into.

    I expect that over the week as we engage with this more deeply; I will be able to put aside my fear of the New Age, and find a lot more to redeem this music. At this point I don’t find the recording to be odious, I just feel that it is slight.

  3. For a long time, I outlawed guitar music — too familiar, too phallocratic, too predictable. In revolt from the post-punk I grew up on as much as from the rock mainstream, I craved other timbres — digital sheen, jazzy authenticity, even the density of chamber musics. But slowly it’s worming its way back: from the shimmering metallic drones of Aidan Baker & thisquietarmy to the bucolic explorations of Australian 12k-ers Seaworthy & Solo Andata, via Fennesz’s brilliant fuzz, some of the music I’ve cherished most lately has been in some way rooted in those six strings.

    GL’s, though, is mostly a twangier, more finger-picked & ‘rootsier’ sound than appeals to me. Occasionally it combines fragility & physicality in a diverting way (the yearning, plaintive openers ‘Honey Bunch’ & ‘Silver Water Ripples’, for example — & in a lovely bowed bass somewhere early on), while a dusty, shuffling background swirl invades & enriches the tone piece ‘Midnight in the Garden Trees’. But overall ‘Dustland’ seems rather safe & unchallenging — & rarely willing to take the less obvious turn.

    Fear I must be missing something here. Really hoping to pick it up from others in this discussion!

  4. These guys would make a great back-up band–I mean that as a compliment, though, obviously, I also mean it as a criticism. I started listening to the album as an experimental, ambient/minimalist work, partly because of my expectations of what Marc would send my way but also because of the simple, repeating guitar phrases of the opening track, “Honey Bunch”, perhaps my favorite. It fades in, mutates but doesn’t really evolve, and fades out again. It’s a good example of the interesting-but-ignorbable formulation of Eno’s that Marc evoked in an earlier discussion. Eno is an obvious reference point here, not so much for his long ambient pieces as much as the short interludes on Before and After Science and Another Green World. I think Dustland is comparable especially to Music for Films, and ultimately I appreciate this album best as a kind of imaginary soundtrack. There’s something of Angelo Badalementi’s sountracks for David Lynch, right down to a vague campiness underying the somber mood of many of the tracks.

    I kept wanting these songs to break out and become pop songs. You could add vocals and a stronger beat to most of these songs and have a very good, moody, trip-hoppy album. Beth Gibbons–or why not Sade? She’s due for a comeback isn’t she? In fact, a few songs–Ballad of Sparrow Young & Pebble Beach for instance–sound almost like the Bad Seeds without Nick Cave.

    So I keep listening and liking but for the most part wanting something more. More pop, more experimental. What would an album length version of “Honey Bunch” sound like? I like the purely noise and samples of “Oblivion Tide”, the one real surprise of the album. The first few times I actually forgot the album was still on and only eventually noticed the static-y rumbling and faraway organ music. It made me think of Coney Island in the winter, though maybe because I’d unconsciously registered the title. Once I did match the title to the song it only added further beachy film references: the dreamy boardwalk funhouses of Curtis Harrington’s “Night Tide” and, because I occasionaly conflate my memories of the two films, the abandoned beach-side ballroom in “Carnival of Souls”. Another minor surprise is the rough, distorted melody line on “Bonetown Boys”. As a whole all the sounds are very pretty and muted, bell-like guitar sounds, pedal steel (I think?) guitar, vibes and Fender Rhodes. All sounds I love (well, except for pedal steel), but a little too pretty and of a piece.

    Lastly, I’d like to note that as a fan and practitioner of works made from Oulipian creative constraints, I noticed that just about every song is based on (and in some cases solely consists of) a two chord pattern. I don’t know if that was a deliberate strategy or a default modus operandi for these guys (I haven’t looked at their website or read anything about them), but it gives a nice formal consistency to the album.

  5. Did anyone pick up on The Gentleman Losers’ self-description of their sound: “music from a past that hasn’t happened yet”? Seems to me that thereby hangs the key to intention and method, and how to approach this ‘slight’ (as Lauren observes) work in such a way as to (perhaps) find something more chewy in it. This kind of reverence for/fixation on the gone, the lost, the abandoned is by now quite familiar to those who’ve been following developments in electronic music, and noted a ‘regressive’ gene/strand, in which there’s been a turning away from the pristine surfaces of digital and a romancing the stone age of analogue and vinyl. It’s as if dust represents something in an age of the sheen-obsessed. Note that title:

    Dustland… …

    Further thoughts: some points of reference that occur to me are along the Library Tapes, Basinski, and Boards of Canada/Bibio lines. Not so much for the ‘songs’, but for the sonic realisation: all that postmodern referencing of the signifiers of Past-ness, and a kind of self-conscious romanticisation of historical elsewhere; hear it in the faux-vintage production techniques and the weathering of textures to create what sounds like a ready-made artifact. All the mentioned artists have takes on the partial erasure and deliberate abrading and muffling of source sounds, and the radical anti-Dolby infusions (is there a ‘crackle and hum’ button among the array of FX on today’s recorders, d’you think?) that prefigure Dustland. As for the overall mood and instrumentation I’d like to throw in a Labradford, cos I can hear their doleful take on ambient twang and that whole Twin Peaks-esque Americana a la Badalamenti, though obviously there’s way less drone-drifting in TGL – more a kind of lo-fi downtempo thing.

    Late-breaking thought: could it be another to bundle in with that Hauntology thread that was rife not long ago…?

    (p.s. I’m not sure if I actually like it or not – I seem to have treated it almost as if I were contemplating a sort of ‘sound work’)

  6. Alan, you’re right – “music from a past that hasn’t happened yet” sounds like a pretty overt Hauntological statement of intent, while their “radical anti-Dolby infusions” (nicely put!) & “faux-vintage production techniques and weathering of textures” seem to reinforce that.

    But to what end? BoC & Labradford sound like no else, even if their sound is constructed out of a palette of recognisable elements & treatments. It’s too harsh to say GL sound just like anyone else (anyone else in Americana territory, obviously), but that’s closer to the truth for these regrettably unreceptive ears…

    As for Basinski, his music feels freighted with both a technical & emotional heft that seems lacking in this – even if this does have its worthwhile moments, of course.

    Marc’s point – echoed by others here – about film scores is well taken. Not sure, though, that I’d much care for a picture dealing in so self-conscious & safe a pastiche.

    But thanks for the Boxhead tip! Will have to pursue…

    “Ambient twang”? Labradford &, arguably, Pan-American, show how that could work. In GL’s case, however: more amb, less twang, please!

  7. It seems like everyone’s making similar observations and coming to similar “eh” conclusions. Alan, I liked your point about signifiers of past-ness and DUST. It’s certainly present here, but at the same time the work doesn’t seem defiantly retro, just using that old timey sound (both in terms of instruments and occasional scratchiness) as part of its palette. And I’m not familiar with the artists Julian mentioned by way of comparison but the point stands that it’s difficult to make a passionate defense of this record.

    Not sure what to add at this point except to come back to Marc’s initial post where he talks about this being the kind of album that’s on his playlist but that he tends to forget about (a clumsy paraphrase, sorry). In a way, this kind of music can thrive in the current iTunes/mp3/shuffle/Genius mode of restless listening where it might not have in an age of vinyl and cassettes. I’ll probably hold on to this album for a while and I wouldn’t be surprised if it pops up in a random shuffle in a few weeks and I think “hm, what’s this? It’s kind of interesting…”

  8. This is, by far, one of the most melodic records I’ve listened to repeatedly in a long time, though for many more pop-oriented people I’ve played it for, it’s apparently not particularly melodic — to a lot of pop listeners I’ve played it for, it seems to come across as dreamy and hazy and a little clinical. It’s probably those aspects that hold the appeal for me — more to the point, the tension between melody and stasis (what others are reading as “slight”-ness, perhaps).

    One thing I’ve focused on in the guitar playing is how the inherent pulsing of a given note or chord tends to set or in any case match the beat of the record. There’s a sensitivity inherent in that sort of playing that is very interesting to pay attention to, at least for me. That to me is the technique most explicable as to why the sonic nature of the recording (the “sound work” nature, as Alan descrbed it) holds appeal.

    It’s sort of a shoegazer version of what Andy Summers used to do on a lot of Police songs — the reverb on a guitar part would in fact be the beat to, or a counterpoint within, a given song. I recall U2 and the Police touring together early on, and I no realize how incredibly boring it must have been for everyone else backstage while the Edge and Summers compared guitar pedals.

    I must now defend “twang” a little — I fear, Julian, you may not dig that Boxhead Ensemble work, or the Scott Tuma solo material, but I would love your take on it. The attenuation in the playing here, while melodic, really is digging deep into the twang, not quite a vertical/harmonic approach (that’s what Boxhead/Tuma are up to), but still really working to pull those “country” elements away from song form and pursue them for their flavors and textures. At its best, Gentleman Losers really get into that allure, explore that allure.

  9. When I think about Dustland as film soundtrack (which I found evocative and helpful), I think of film noir, but modern. And what better setting for modern noir than Coney Island in the winter? Or maybe a modern Western — ironically I was thinking that this might work for The Proposition, the movie Nick Cave wrote and set in Australia.

    This is a carefully composed record; from its formal and repetitive guitar notation to its “Hauntological intent,” and its subtle use of distortion to add texture. And I think that the “Losers” were deliberate in their attempt to create future-past music.

    So we have a couple of egg-head Finns dealing with both stasis and decay. God forbid they should be called clinical — though I would imagine the artists themselves would agree and perhaps be flattered.

  10. I agree with Julian that comparisons with the ref. points I mentioned are invidious, the GLs sounding ‘at another remove’ from their sources than the likes of BoC and Labradford, and, with this in mind, I still find the whole thing a little too ‘studied’, though I can see the appeal, and appreciate the finer detail regarding the guitar parts that Marc notes.

    Here’s a thing: the film soundtrack and Western/Americana concept suggested by (some of) Dustland prompted me to go back and indulge in a little compare/contrast exercise with A Small Good Thing’s ‘Slim Westerns’ project from the mid-90s. The more ambient-inclined of our group here might know of this as several members of veteran ambienteers O Yuki Conjugate in a faux/neo-Western genre exercise. Links to samples here:

    See what you think. Personally, I find the ASGT/OYC project more interesting and satisfyingly resonant, albeit arguably just as much based on a conceit as the GLs.

  11. Alan — I was wondering if you could expand on what you identify as electronic music’s regressive trend. What artists do you identify with this strand?

    In pop music, even with the advent of digital recording techniques and CDs, the appreciation for, and even the fetishization of the “crackle and pop” has stayed healthy. Even in the 90s, when pop sounded very clean and shiny, the underground always made space for a lo-fi. Granted that sound went a bit deeper underground then — but I think it always existed in tandem.

    I hear a lot of dusty sounding faux-vintage-or-not in today’s leftfield pop. Is both pop and electronic music in a reactionary swing away from the glossy 90s?

  12. Alan, thanks for using links to make those contrasts. That was really useful — and a great precedent for future MP3 Discussion Groups. I had not heard that A Small Good Thing collection. I really enjoyed what I heard, and found some parallels to what I’d described about the way the Gentleman Losers pay attention to the slow pulse of their chords, especially on the track “Saguaro.” To me, this was more song-like, more “music minus one,” at times than the Losers — I kept hearing Chris Isaak in my head. (To Lauren’s point, the choral moaning and heavy percussion in “A Mighty Stillness” could really be straight out of that Nick Cave film.)

    That’s all on a cursory listen. I’m gonna pick up the full set and give it some attention.

  13. I have to admit to being surprised at the muffled applause for Dustland, as I suspect that, unlike the album itself, it is not dulled simply by its passage through the faded, peeling wallpaper of The Gentleman Losers’ kesämökki. I loved this group’s first album, from its use of old instruments and old recording technology to the blurred photographs on its cover, the warmth of its emotions offset by the arctic chill so clearly beyond its walls. Several years later, then, the return of this group is for me a welcome one, even if Dustland keeps its distance from the more explicit mellotron melancholy previously heard here –

    If the first album was the winter rumination of an empty summer cottage, the second seems almost the sense memory of the walls themselves, as if each song heard off the elderly Grundig valve radio had left a trace as it passed through the walls before evaporating in the sauna steam. If this record has anything to do with country music, it is with the recollection of the feeling produced by that music, with the reference points of a world in which that music is in the background, reminding me in this way of the KLF’s use of Elvis on Chill Out, Brian Eno’s (yes, Eno again) outer space pedal steel on the second side of Apollo, and David Sylvian’s desert Americana on the second LP of Gone To Earth. (Strangely, as a fan of O Yuki Conjugate and A Small Good Thing, I still have not heard Slim Westerns, although Alan’s mention of these records is a well timed reminder that I should do so.) This is not, to me, the sound of two Finnish men in cowboy drag doing instrumental rock only until they perfect their Texan accents for the vocals on the next record; rather, it is the sound of warm music refracted through a cold and distant place. And even if there is a clear point of reference in the sound, which to me reminds of Sky Records and, yes, Music For Films, I do not detect the sort of retrograde longing found, for example, in the beautiful records of Porn Sword Tobacco, which immediately conjure for me Volvo 120s and Roy Andersson’s mid-1970s Swedish Love Story. Since for me this music works and is meant to work at an emotional level, perhaps what I feel while playing Dustland is the same thing I sense in myself while listening, for example, to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn or Cluster’s Sowiesoso: that at a certain moment, the world conjured by these records was a world of possibilities, among which was the possibility of going into a studio and recording such record, as well as, more intoxicatingly, that of inhabiting the landscapes extending out beyond these sounds. Rather than nostalgia, perhaps these Losers are simply using musical and technological references to evoke the otherness of their imaginary present, the one in which this music is heard through the walls of one’s flat off the neighbor’s radio, the one in which one goes out the door into the other possible. There is a faint touch, too, of the hermetic here, as if this is a private or closed world, a slideshow left running with the bulb burned out, until we realized it was just the shadows of trembling leafless trees through dirty glass.

  14. Lauren makes a good point about dirty, analog (if not deliberately lo-fi) recording having been a staple of indie rock for quite some time now. Dustland still sounds awfully clean and studio-bound compared to early Guided by Voices, to take one example. Like her I’m curious as to whether the phenomenon in electronica that Alan wrote about is related to indie/punk rock’s rejection of not just slick pop music but also over-produced rock. I have a feeling the impulse may be more complicated for electronic music.

    Alan, thanks for the links to Slim Westerns, sounds like something that merits closer listening. As Marc said, it sounds even more conventionally song-bound than Dustland, at least after a quick scan, and it may well be more successful for it. I’m still listening to an enjoying the album but I’m afraid this conversation–which has been enlightening in many ways, and thanks, Marc, for inviting me–hasn’t significantly changed my initial reaction.

    Joshua made a lot of good observations and distinctions about the difference between wallowing in retro-nostalgia on the one hand, and, on the other, marshalling earlier production techniques, instrumentation (including twang!), and song forms (ballads, lullabyes) in the service of creating something that points, if not to the future, than to somewhere we haven’t quite been before. I think we would all agree (let me know if I’m wrong) the latter is what TGL are aiming for.

  15. Lauren – I’ll answer your question with a case study. Give an ear to these tracks/releases, all of which came out on the 12k label between the late 90s and this year, and consider them in the order given:

    Taylor Deupree:


    Taylor Deupree:


    You’ll hear how this once Cutting Edge Post-digital Minimalist Glitch Electronica (blah) label has moved towards the cottage industry post-rock organic ambient drone sound of something like early/mid 90s Kranky (see esp. Pillowdiver). (I use the word ‘regressive’ not evaluatively, but descriptively, i.e. to indicate movement away from and back towards another earlier paradigm)

    Oh, and… remember ‘indietronica’? Another similarly-oriented study could be to consider how the n5md label shifted paradigms from being a dyed-in-the-wool digital electronica/IDM imprint (around 2001) to being purveyors of wishy-washy post-indie-shoegaze with a half-arsed bit of ‘tronica thrown in (circa 2007 onwards).

    OK. So, the above has nothing to do with the GLs discush, but I wanted to address the question, and in the meantime Joshua mosied on into the salo(o)n and waxed mighty (and appositely) lyrical, rendering any blather I might have thought to dribble out on the subject otiose.

  16. On further scrutiny, back to the compare/contrast, A Small Good Thing is more obviously pastiche, channeling genre elements from Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks and Ry Cooder’s ‘Paris Texas’, while ref points for the GLs are not so strictly generic or ‘Wild Western’ – more wide-ranging and more in line with diverse coordinates approximated by Joshua. And, late in the day, I’m less inclined to hang it on the neo-Western hook. If anything, I’m hearing more of the noodly string-iness redolent of ‘post-rock’, albeit with the rock filtered out. I guess I’m still ‘analysing’ it like a research subject rather than engaging with it as a listener. Perhaps I might say to the GLs, as in a lover’s tiff, ‘It’s not you, it’s me…’

  17. Reflecting further, Labradford is well introduced here and makes an interesting basis for comparison, because for me the first listen to Prazision was an entirely disorienting experience, its static and ground-looped hum leaving me with the feeling that I had received a transmission from another universe, and A Stable Reference only intensified the effect, even if I sensed that a strangely glacial and incomprehensibly alien ensemble of early Cure obsessives had become involved on the other side of the radio telescope. Around this time the even more enigmatic Aurobindo: Involution by Daren Seymour & Mark Van Hoen came to confuse, and while its titles were set bewilderingly in the past (“January 23rd, 1986 – Battery Ending” being a personal favorite) it seemed again to point to a past fixed only within the amber of a failed analog memory cartridge removed from a crashed craft. But these are three beautiful and rather unique records designed, it seems, to unmoor us, whereas The Gentleman Losers have created something quite comfortable and familiar (and Alan’s mention of Bibio fits right into what I picture at present as a somewhat faded, dog-slept and cat-clawed old couch, in contrast perhaps to Boards Of Canada’s mint-condition 1970s flight bag collection) and yet, not quite, like the dacha in the roiling sea at the end of Solaris. Also heard through the window here is Axel Linstädt’s soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Im Lauf Der Zeit, which even in 1970s yearned for older days, the soundtrack not so much conjuring a past as allowing the film to drift into a state in which that past could be felt, within the fabric of the present, yet irretrievable and lost to all but memory.

  18. I leave these posts open, even after the discussion comes to a close, so someone else may add to it, but lemme say thanks to everyone for another great conversation — especially to Matt Madden, who joined for the first time.

    One of the things that’s interesting about these discussions is that we’re all exposed to the record in question to varying degrees — I was very familiar with this one, much more than I have been with either of the upcoming releases we’ll be discussing next. It’s fascinating for me to gauge people’s initial reactions, and then to see if and how they develop.

    The other is that, and this isn’t something I’ve done a great job making clear, everyone’s initial post (with the exception of folk who join in later) was written before they’ve had a chance to read what anyone else has written — hence the references to Brian Eno’s definition of ambient by both Alan and Julian a couple discussions prior, and likewise both Matt and my references to David Lynch’s beloved film-score composer in this conversation.

    For me, in the end, Gentleman Loser remains a soundtrack — a soundtrack to our discussion, both subject and context. Thanks again.

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