Songs And Instrumentals (4AD/Remote Control)
Both Adrianne Lenker (American, seemingly fragile but actually taut and resistant, playing acoustic and gentle) and Jasmin Albash (Swiss/Palestinian, apparently controlled but actually showing the cracks, playing electronic and rhythmic) have shed bands or monikers for albums under their own names this year.
For Lenker, the truly wonderful principal writer/singer of Big Thief, this is not new, though the solo work tends to be rawer than the band’s albums, even if the lyrical directions don’t wildly differ. For Albash, who has worked as part of different projects and under the name The RK, this is a big step and the openness is something to challenge as well as admire.
Importantly, in both cases their albums are intensely focused and personal, but intensity doesn’t mean difficult to take: these are accessible, attractive records even when the material goes into tricky situations. Lenker’s ability to pull you in to her world is like that of the quiet talker who makes no fuss in her storytelling but you want to be near to feel the story, not just hear it. For Albash, the lure is in the warm invitation of her voice that similarly makes no fuss but suggests depths of understanding.
The line which might sum up Albash’s album would be “I raise my voice for you, stolen words come through”. It is specifically a reference to the stories of her paternal Palestinian grandparents, displaced since the creation of Israel, but Gold is a collection built around concepts of generational pull and connection.
There are physical manifestations of this through the album: skin and hearts and gaps where bodies might go, but overall Albash asks what do our inner lives lack when we only know part of our stories? Plenty, is the short answer.
And you can sense that in the hollowness beneath Moving On, a limber pulse-drive which feels like Faithless in its grey clouds-tinged momentum, as well as the yearning for something intangible within Going Out To See You, which evokes a measured walk down night roads that doesn’t have a destination, just the need to move.
The more pressing tone of No Me Salen Las Palabras (percussion and drums moving from prickly to punchy) might contrast with the liquid flow of Leave (keyboard bass and dancing synths) but in both cases the overriding sense is of searching, of restlessness.
This is why that search is not yet done when the album closes with Sink, which has an edge of disquiet in both lyrics and music, even as the centre remains inviting. There’s something in the fact that this set-up is almost a reverse of the title track that opens the album with the surrounding swirl and close atmosphere being pierced by vocals on the edge of anxiety. It’s a clue that Albash sees her evolution as not complete.
If Adrianne Lenker’s occasional comparison to (the lesser, let’s be honest) Justin Vernon, in particular the Bon Iver album of forlorn man holed up in the wilderness, For Emma, Forever Ago, has seemed so obvious with her fractured fairy tales voice, the fact this album was made in isolation during lockdown this year, and turns on what seems a difficult breakup, might seal the deal.
Oddly enough though, the circumstances of the recording are most visible in the two tracks on the instrumentals disc. Mostly Chimes devolves from folk-picking guitar into vast spaces of emptiness, small resonating sounds - the chimes - liable to make the hairs on your neck stand up. The longer Music For Indigo, which precedes it, is track which grows in confidence, almost bouncy in its optimism and exploration of light revealing itself.
Remember the way you felt at the beginning of lockdown: that sense of unified action and refusal to give in to gloom, the adventure of a new, temporary, existence. That’s Music For Indigo. Now, remember how you felt weeks in, or worse still, at the announcement of a second lockdown: that creeping dread and slowly crumbling resolve, ending in a countdown to escape that never moved any closer to zero. That’s Mostly Chimes.
Back to the songs, where genuine wonder is created. Made on acoustic guitar, sung in a manner that sits nearer Neil Young wholly indifferent to being overheard than Vernon hoping not to be heard, these songs are effortless. They blow across your skin like tufts of wind (Half Return) or settle on you like dust motes (Come), they dance around you in the lightest slippers (Ingydar) and they hold you as if cushioned by air (Dragon Eyes).
Effortless doesn’t mean without impact though. Dragon Eyes has the feel of a crushed heart beginning to fill again, tentative but set on the possibilities, and it near finishes me each time, even though it is not without hope. Actually, probably because it is not without hope. “Freezing at the edge of the bed/Chewing a cigarette and repeating/Shadows of the words I said/I don't wanna blame you,” she sings, adding later, “Stars bloom/On a warm summer night/They have a clear view/Without the bedroom light/I just want a place with you/I just want a place.”
If the music seems simple and the presentation simpler still, Lenker is never afraid to colour her lyrics with more florid shades, allowing them to luxuriate while still bringing you nearer understanding something. Whether that is understanding her or you is an interesting question.
Is it a dead horse, a metaphor, or something more than both in Ingydar for example when she offers His eyes are blueberries, video screens/Minneapolis schemes and the dried flowers/From books half-read/The juice of dark cherries cover his chin/The dog walks in and the crow lies in his/Jaw like lead … Everything eats and is eaten/Time is fed”?
There’s so much to see and hear on a record which brings as little as possible to the fight but makes every point, every follow-up blade, count. If Albash is evolving, Lenker already is something quite magnificent.
Listen to Adrianne Lenker – Songs And Instrumentals
Listen to Adrianne Lenker – Songs And Instrumentals