A clasping of hihat and a repeated in two bass frame starts off Kryptonite Smokes the Red Line, followed by a trombone which whines and waws its understanding of a "oops-you-lose" melody. Digital manipulation infects the percussion, as the song wanders into its first bridge, an undertow somewhere beneath the unstable molecule, striving to maintain its form.
The Unstable Molecule is Isotope 217’s first album, released by Thrill Jockey on November 4, 1997. It is a short album, full of riddles and jazz riders of the purple sun. Water imagery in the song titles persist here and the music has a quality to it that compliments.
Beneath the Undertow’s hopping trombone and trumpet interaction, choosing to dance over the tight-scaling bass and double drum set rhythm playing accent a mood of spinning, falling, and somehow propelling oneself to take flight. And then Rob Mazurek’s (Chicago Underground Duo) sweet cornet tones solo into tempered transmigratory tension, everything in pursuance of the vibe, which can be anywhere, sleeping—waiting to be woken up. The instability of the molecule’s own relationship with the jazz they communicate through becomes more evident, as the synthesizers burble and pitch-high, rising to meet the star people notes of Mazurek’s cornet.
Nothing on earth is quite like La Jeteé, a Tortoise song originally titled Jetty, reflecting the short film of the same name. In this moodier, more subtly painted version, the bass crawls, searching forward in its simple three-note per bar format, while both the trombone and cornet get themselves ready for some light, black-tie soloing that invigorate the vibe further. Sara P. Smith’s trombone is the real treat here, slightly hooked in to a delay box, giving it a warm counter-effect that compliments her breathy playing. The reluctance of Poppy Brandes’ cello is enlightening. One must listen very closely to hear it at all—making everything closer, almost breaking underneath the soft plucking of Jeff Parker’s (Tortoise) guitar.
Jeff Parker never really stretches out into his unique guitar playing until Phonometrics, a song with a definite head riff that they repeat for a few bars before going into the bridge and changes, where his skillful hands navigate his guitar’s strings to rounded distortion effects, while maintaining this crisp, familiar jazz guitar sound.
Prince Namor starts out slow, and heads into the most cacophonous territory the album ever visits, acting as a precursor to the raucous fun to come in 2000’s Who Stole the I Walkman?. Audio Boxing hints at a heavy-bass big-band sound that the Isotope only explore for about three minutes before leaving the listener with cold-hearted silence. This is the sound that will be picked up for their second album, The Utonian Automatic.
The Unstable Molecule, when I first heard it in 1999 was a kind of revelation for me, a second step into an entire musical world that I will be exploring for the rest of my life. After getting into Tortoise’s TNT my first semester of college in 1998, I was excited to hear more of what was coming out from these guys, and so I purchased this album and The Sea and Cake’s The Fawn. Together, they form a triad-memory that warms my heart like oat meal.