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Wooden Box With Strings (Half A Cow)

There is something to nominative determinism, surely.

I don’t know for sure that it was the intention at birth, nearly two decades ago, when the multi-faceted John Encarnacao called this project Warmer. I do know that it is the truth now though that this is an album of naturalness and comfort, of physical closeness and emotional intimacy, of not just the real but real with something warmer.

The guitars, double bass, piano and string quartet – the wooden boxes with strings – arranged with Hammond organ, drums and voices, play centrally but not with any sustained dominance. Encarnacao’s closely tethered voice does something similar, though its tone is one of the standouts of producer Dave Carter’s work, and it becomes a leader by nature rather than imposition.

Those “natural” elements make for gentleness, sure – and that is one of the album’s defining features, the stall set out in the opening lightly-touched-with-country title track, which even as it bends towards a rich folk setting, and then closes with a more scratchy, contemporary breakdown, retains a sense of a tender exchange. And in You Broke The Wheel, Encarnacao drifts by on acoustic guitar and piano, nudged by occasional puffs of voices from Mandy Pearson and Zoe Carides.

However, gentleness doesn’t mean softness. Fire Engine, with a shimmer of air behind the voice becoming solid and cool, sees harsher forceful guitars wash over the top of raw acoustic stabs; Got Older Today watches Emily Wolfe’s violin shake free and with increasingly swingeing cuts forge a path through an organic Big Pink basement atmosphere, her adventure enough that eventually Matt Boden’s Hammond begins a pursuit; in Cry For The Moon, as Encarnacao’s voice moves from tentative to reflective to tense, what’s described as “percussive debris” is thrown against the thin wall of strings again and again until a truce is declared.

For further, perhaps conclusive proof, there is Blackboard Sky, which opens with an Eno-esque melody – firstly in the vocals and then in the acoustic guitar – that serves as a launch pad for the pressed strings of an e-bowed guitar scratching out a Fripp-ish pattern that is neither soothing nor searing, but is compelling.

Edge and centre, cut and smooth, box and strings.

But again, that’s not the whole story. There’s a pop overlay everywhere here, and by overlay, I mean heart and soul.

The Elliott Smith influence which ran through earlier Warmer recordings (while it is nine years since the previous Warmer album, Spider And Lamb, this is Encarnacao’s fourth record under this name, while he’s made solo improvised guitar works and art music for the theatre under his own name) is still here, the blend of beauty and melancholy and twinged nerve endings as appealing as ever.

But there’s also the warped McCartney of New Thing, the sunshine folk/pop of Fishes Swim And Corals Grow, and most vividly, the exuberant ‘60s spring-in-the-step Get So High I Can’t Get Down, which is the closest link to another of his projects, the poptastic The Nature Strip, and closes the album on a little laugh of joy.

That joy is appropriate because the warmer things here are natural and sonic but also attitudinal. There’s a back story of this album being recorded in 14 days in Tasmania, separated from not just the mainland but familiar ways and instruments and more wizened studio hands, that went a long way to providing the kind of rejuvenation and optimism even a veteran like Encarnacao can’t help but imbibe.

As a final note, you can get this as sound files but I’d highly recommend if you can taking Wooden Box With Strings to its natural, organic, real … and yes, warmest point, and getting this on vinyl.


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