REVIEW: Spartan Jet-Plex - Touch Tone

Kelly Kirwan

“These flies sitting on the wall / My pride chooses me alone / Don’t cry, your bruises break my fall.”

The lyrics are soft and ethereal, delivered at a slow but deliberate pace, almost chant-like. It’s the calm before the storm, clouds looming overhead and a gentle rustle in the trees—any second the sky will crack and the weather will break, but Nancy Kells' Touch Tone manages to prolong those moments of peace and slow-brewing dread, and it’s magnetic. True to the folk genre from which her specific brand is inspired, Spartan Jet-Plex (Kells’ alter-ego) feels wise and a bit pained, as if it were an achingly beautiful oral tradition passed down through the generations.

The emotional weight of Kells' work may be tied to her past professions, earning a degree in sculpture before going on to teach special education in rural Virginia. It’s this natural empathy, mixed with her affinity for vivid, symbolic imagery that defines her music. Take the album opener, "This," quoted above. Speaking to GoldFlakePaint, Kells admitted the track was about the “push and pull of relationships,” and how we are still individuals (or, as she put it, alone) despite the company we keep. That context gives the song a new weight, making her vocals feel almost ghostly, drifting through our speakers as light as mist, wistfully solitary. Her voice is layered against minimal instrumentals—simple, repetitive guitar strumming and a chorus of “aaahh”s that seem both sigh and spiritual reprise.

A starkly different track, if not in melody alone, is "Wild." It opens on heavy percussion (a mix of machine and hand drumming) paired with inaudible vocals that once again feel tied to some divine worship deep in the lush greenery of the forest. Tambourine-esque cymbals punctuate the beat, which builds and then plateaus into deep silence. Not a single word is spoken throughout, and that’s the point. The percussion speaks to you on a physical level, the kind of track that makes you lose yourself in your movements, and perhaps even a vision of a past life. It’s a quick and hypnotic three minutes, a song that Kells crafted to settle her thirst for experimentation (with top marks).

Touch Tone is addictively unnerving. Nancy Kells has a siren voice, pulling us in to a world that’s both stunning and darkly layered. She can hit the high notes like Carly Simon and incorporate quirky synths with the best of our modern day producers. It’s lo-fi bedroom folk for the soul, not to be missed.