Freshman year of college, bright and eager as I was, I made it my mission to “expand my horizons.” (That idiom was about as deep as the thought: I was going to see the world, I just had no idea how to go about it). In the name of that lofty goal, I found myself at an art installation early one Friday night.
The idea was simple enough. The audience was asked to take a seat in the middle of a derelict art gallery, which was covered in speakers. The lights were lowered, and nothing at all seemed to happen. Slowly, I became aware of a distinctive buzzing emanating from the speakers. At first I mistook it for the warm hum of low-level feedback, but as the volume increased, the sound settled in somewhere between a summer cricket’s mating call and, well, the oppressive feedback of a guitar left in front of a Marshall stack. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It simply was. For about 20 minutes I sat and fantasized about the girl sitting next to me (really the only reason I was there), while the entire room listened to a recording of Japanese beetle feedback.
And then it happened. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the feedback seemed to shift in pitch, timbre, and duration. As if out of thin air, where once there was only feedback, there was now a complex, swirling mass of almost-music. Maybe it was the sensory deprivation that created what I heard, or maybe the composer of the piece really did begin to modify the emitted tones ever so slightly, but all I know is that my definition of music became a lot more strange and wonderful after that moment.
I’m telling you this story not just to fill up the word count on this review, but because I believe it is the most salient version of a complex idea that has run through the history of popular music. The music we hear, day in and day out, really only occupies a small subset of the possible sonic emission spectrum perceived by the human ear. What we call rhythm, chord structure, and melody are nothing more than artificially imposed rubrics with which we limit auditory expression.
In the 1920’s, Bebop Jazz was just noise. In 1956, Elvis was just noise (and hips). In the 80’s, Hip-Hop wasn’t real music, it was just noise. The honest truth is that music only grows because someone creates something that “isn’t music,” and does it so well that the paradigm is rightfully shifted. Now, I’m not saying that Lydia Ainsworth is the new Hip-Hop. Such a statement, without the lenses of retrospective context, would not only be too bold a proclamation, but would undercut the quiet manner in which Ainsworth is upending certain traditions of popular music. When people first heard Buddy Rich, no one really understood what he was doing with the drums. When people first heard Grandmaster Flash, few really understood how he was re-contextualizing samples. Lydia Ainsworth’s Right from Real, Pt. I, is not a tectonic shift of the musical plates. Most will be able to understand it in the oeuvre of pop music, but it will take a little getting used to.
Before settling in to creating this album, Lydia Ainsworth composed film scores. Like many experimenters in pop music, her musical approach is born of an altered focus. Ainsworth, in the four songs that make up the EP, explores the possibilities of tension and release through music. Much in the way film soundtracks underscore emotional beats within a story, Ainsworth’s music seems to take its transitional cues not from standard song structure, but from emotional catharsis as it clashes with traditional pop music.
Take for instance “Candle,” the scene-setting opener. Most every pop song creates tension and release through chord structure: a minor chord gives way to a major chord and so on. But “Candle,” while still containing a traditional chord progression, pushes it to the background in favor of a Krautrock focus on a repetitive, three-note melody and a few percolating drum patterns. Furthermore, the traditional verse-chorus structure is completely tossed out. Instead, Ainsworth reuses the initial vocal lines to create stacked samples that result in endless clashing and mellifluous harmonic intersections. The repeated vocal line, “One by one by one by one,” darts in and out as a hook, but does more to anchor the track than release tension. With a film scorer’s touch, the true release point of the song is the rhythmically untethered, orchestral string movements that arise from the din of samples. It’s a neat trick of a song, and like an opera’s overture, it paves the way for the EP’s continuing themes.
“White Shadows” is somewhat more straightforward, as it opens up with a bright tubular-bell melody balanced by a contrapuntal synth line. There’s even a real 4/4 beat to be found in the same percolating percussion as before. But while “White Shadows” may start off like the full version of Ainsworth’s applied tricks, it soon becomes apparent that this track hopes to upend our sensibilities as well. Where “Candles” was an act in tension and release, “White Shadows” evokes feelings of the ephemeral. Instruments and scattershot vocal melodies drift in and out of the mix, leaving only vapor trails. When something finally sticks, it’s Ainsworth’s voice that takes center stage. As the music is stripped back she sings, “White shadows glisten in the dark / Between emotion and response,” placing her narration in the same emotional space that the song has left the listener.
While both “Candles” and “White Shadows” play with the figures of traditional songs, it’s only in listening to “Malachite” that Ainsworth’s end goal becomes tangible. Sounding like a darker cousin to Grimes’ “Oblivion,” a fully-formed song arises out of the discursive elements Ainsworth has applied to the tape. There’s a snare hit to anchor the bubbling drum line. The strings still swell and burst around the edges, but now they do it in a distinct counterpoint to Ainsworth’s vocal melody.
Completing the trajectory of the EP, “Take Your Face Off” ends the album with a sound that’s probably about as close to “normal” as Ainsworth will ever get. A Purity Ring-esque vocal hook is trailed closely by melodic house piano lines, but just because all the typical markers of melodic song structure are present (a hook, a chorus, etc.), don’t for a second think that this track is easy to categorize.
In the only easily-understood vocal turn on the album, Ainsworth spins an obtuse tale of epic fantasy which seems to stand in as a metaphor for emotional disconnect. Though it’s weird to admit this, I don’t think I really understood the EP until “Take Your Face Off,” where the lyrical obfuscation focused my understanding of the music. Yes, Ainsworth is overturning notions of traditional song structure, but it’s done for more than a lark. This is an album about trying to be understood, and, ultimately, failing. Her music is difficult to parse because it places the listener in the same position of howling isolation about which she seems to write.
All good musical experiments are ultimately rooted in emotion. We sing a different way not because it’s weird, but because it’s the only way our voices can convey the emotion we are so desperately trying to communicate. Right from Real, Pt. I is not just an experiment in sonic structure, it’s the start of a conversation between listener and artist. Yes, an elliptical work like this is asking for a little more from our side of the conversation. But ultimately, the question is right there in the lyrics: “I move so close / So don’t you feel it?”