Spool – Spool (1998)

Spool album cover
Spool album cover

In my experience, ambient music follows a certain pattern, often dark and sometimes aggressive with layered sounds leading up to some sort of musical reveal. There are rare times when something ambient goes beyond those sonic definitions almost to the point of creating its own subgenre.

One of those somethings comes from the San Francisco via Chicago based duo Jhno and John Ridenour, better known as Spool. Jhno, a keyboardist and producer combined with Ridenour’s guitar and bass playing equals a sound that is warm and familiar, yet fresh and innovative. Not to be confused with a German band of the same name, the real Spool’s self titled debut offered a welcome variation to a musical genre that was starting to settle into predictability.

Using influences from trance, house, jungle and ambient music, the two manage to create a densely intricate collection of soothing yet engaging songs. Titled with short names like “Ebo”, “Y” or “Yin”, Spool is a collection of 7 sophisticated compositions with a digital/analog mix of tones and textures that separates them from most other ambient music.

Surprisingly, much of Spool operates on two levels, it could be engaging headphone music, revealing the complexity of it’s production or it can be equally effective as background music. In the purest sense of the word, Spool fulfills Brian Eno’s original goal of making ambient music a kind of sonic texture that blends in with the place it is played in.

Its that kind of warm familiarity that makes Spool so addictive. The driving bass line of “Ebo” for instance, reminded me of the comforting sensation of falling asleep in a moving car as a child. The repetitive bass line, never harsh, is tempered by breaks of percussion like snap of expansion joints on a highway.

Touches of jazz and space music add to the complex tapestry of sounds, there’s even a trace of violin. Spool is best heard in a single setting, preferably in a captive environment like a motorcar.
On my road trips to North Carolina, I could easily loose track of how many times Spool would be playing because it’s the perfect soundtrack from a road trip.

I had not read or heard anything about the band prior to my exposure to Spool. Fortunately for me a forward thinking associate of  the Columbus Metropolitan Public Library was cool enough to include the album in its collection shortly after it was released. I checked it out based on mt assumptions about its cover and the credits on the back, but still a gamble – one that I won. I liked it so much I had to get a copy for myself. Around that time Spool had only one album and it was difficult to find.

Spool’s discography is lean with only two albums (Spool Saves the World from 2006) released since 1998. Spool remains the Swiss Army Knife of ambient music for me because its so versatile and works on so many different levels. It was once nearly impossible to find the actual CD of Spool, except for the occasional expensive out of print LP or CD on Amazon or EBay. Fortunately, the album was re-released in 2007 and is available as a relatively inexpensive download from Amazon.

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