The experimental duo Squash & Biscuit 瓜和饼干 (Shuwen Zhao and Brian Griffith) identify themselves as “Los Angeles Film Design and Sound Design” creators. On their website, their moniker greets you against a warm field of glitchy and blurred video reminiscent of VHS distortions mixed with noticeable pixelation. The aesthetic is comforting without becoming sentimental and contemporary without becoming superficial — an homage to an earlier 1980s video art while firmly oriented towards our digital present. It’s an important introduction given that Squash & Biscuit 瓜和饼干 describe their practice as both “at home with visual media” and as independent audio. Their debut album, Lavender Eggplant 绛仙 (Casa Berenice Recordings), falls into the latter category. Still, given the work’s emphasis on memory, imagery is never far from the listener’s mind.
The album, in the words of the duo, is “constructed as a series of intimate moments” with tracks acting “as a short investigation into the world between sound and music …[that] form familiar memories of a parallel life.” Composed of manipulated vocals, field recordings, found sounds, samples, and synthesized instruments, the seven pieces have oscillating structures that range from atmospheric to more ordered works.
These fragments are quite effective at evoking sense of place and time, if not necessarily specific ones, which is partly why I found myself thinking about the duo’s sounds as souvenirs. The ability of a track to become a sonic token of either Squash & Biscuit’s parallel life or my own is one of the album’s greatest strengths. I often heard the indelible sounds of Los Angeles (where the album was recorded) but through the lens of specific childhood experiences in Echo Park Lake and Wilderness Park. It’s also why this album works best when heard through headphones — the continuous panning, the warmth of the synth, the low dark drones that crash onto you, and the playful word games are best heard intimately.
The first track, “Inky Night” (烏夜啼), is composed of dark, glitchy, nonsensical voices in constant motion combined with warm sunny analog waves. They intensify until you hear an echoing crackle. It’s a strange opening, but one that effectively materializes the previous ambiance into a proper setting and punctuates several subsequent tracks to similar success. This first employment of the effect primes the listener for its reappearances but contrasts with the second track, “Dew Drop Refraction” (採露回).
While “Dew Drop Refraction” (採露回) continues the vocal fragmentation and rich textures of the opening track, it possesses a coherency distinct in the album. This stand-alone quality grows in repeat listening. Given this effect, one wonders if bookending the album with these two tracks might remedy this. Ultimately, the pairing of these two tracks is an effect not so much jarring as curious, particularly since the later tracks hew closer to the design of “Inky Night” 烏夜啼.
The following five tracks have a growing familiarity that ameliorates some of these initial eccentricities and gives a deepened appreciation of the duo’s art. “Small Dawn” (剪朝霞) begins with a series of reflected sounds mapping the recording space filled with increasingly animated musical chatter. One starts to hear consistent grooves and recognizable patterns that recall previous tracks and that will connect to later ones. By the time the album reaches the midpoint with “Soft Wood” (楊柳枝), one does start to sense particular and personal meaning in the experimental audio. Fingers drumming, soft wood tapping, and soft voices remain noticeable, even when overpowered by a wave of saw-like drones weaved through distorted loud vocal fragments. This cumulative effect even occasionally suggests tone painting the final three tracks, “Lake Geese” (野鴻鳴), “Steamed Buns” (氤小團), and “Pond Ducks” (鴨頭綠).
Though Lavender Eggplant 绛仙 is a self-declared short investigation, it offers the listener a great deal in less than 24 minutes. Whether one feels acquainted with a parallel life at the end is debatable, but Squash & Biscuit’s evocation of memory is apt and rewards repeat listening through increased awareness of meaning attached to their collection of sounds.