Director Jim Jarmusch has been increasingly hung up on music since shooting his last feature The Limits of Control, a beautiful slow-crawl through the mind of an assassin. He’s produced two albums with lutist Jozef Van Wissem, worked as a curator at the New York incarnation of ATP, and recorded a series of EPs with his new band, a trio named SQÜRL. This project began life under the name Bad Rabbit, assembled by Jarmusch, drummer Carter Logan, and Vampire Weekend/Sleigh Bells engineer Shane Stoneback. The initial aim was to flesh out the Limits soundtrack with thoughtful, instrumental rock passages. This EP, apparently the first in a series, is an advance on that music. The setting is firmly fixed to “desert,” with each of the four tracks touching on Josh Homme’s approach to psychedelic rock.
It’s not hard to imagine an alternate universe where Jarmusch pursued music harder than film. At a recent show at the Mercury Lounge in New York, staged to showcase SQÜRL and his work with Van Wissem, he cut an imposing figure on stage. Whether stepping up to the mic or stooping down by his amp to pull out a wail of feedback, it felt like these were the predominant moments Jarmusch played out in his teenage dreams. Of course, he’s played on stage many times before, notably with no wave outfit the Del-Byzanteens, but at this stage in his career, where he’s comfortably established in a different medium, the show at the Mercury was pleasing for the full-blooded commitment it showed. It’s indicative of the way Jarmusch works, finding weight in moments both big and small, never ascribing more importance to one over the other.
That wilfull artistic blindness is fundamental to Jarmusch’s stradling of the avant garde and the mainstream. It’s what allows him to put Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes in a movie with Robert Mitchum and Johnny Depp. Similarly, SQÜRL draws from a number of different disciplines. One track on this EP is simply drawn from layers of feedback. Another matches crunchy, distorted guitar lines to Jarmusch singing about being surrounded by piles of dead hippies. Yes, he’s singing here, on two out of four tracks, only one of which deviates into the forlorn rock & roll crooner trap you might expect him to fall into. That track– a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” forcibly shoved through a meat grinder– is the weakest work here, the only song that feels like an afterthought, and currently outpaced in the gutter-neon stakes by Jarmusch acolyte Dirty Beaches.
Where SQÜRL works best, perhaps unsurprisingly, is through the planes of repetitive sound that make up “Pink Dust”. It’s the most soundtrack-y thing here, the closest this EP gets to forming a link to the material this band specifically composed for film under their Bad Rabbit guise. The guitar tone isn’t far from Boris’s “Farewell”– itself a part of the Limits of Control soundtrack– but with a far nastier undercurrent crudely stamped all the way through it. It’s a decent approximation of the kind of stuff Jarmusch has clearly been listening to in recent times, judging from his soundtrack work and handpicked ATP lineup. It’s part drone-rock, part metal, part blissful stoner fatigue. There’s a power to it that the rest of the material can’t get back to, a sense of magic unfolding in those gigantic riffs. For now, SQÜRL describe themselves as “enthusiastically marginal,” but there’s enough going on here to suggest that’s a placeholder rather than an epitaph.