Chamber Folk

REVIEW: Laura Wolf - Stitch One

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Phillipe Roberts

In an Old Spruce Sessions video released in August of this year, Laura Wolf performs two songs off of her latest EP, Stitch One. The rendition of “Circles” is spare and lovely, but it’s her version of “Good” that truly shines. On the album, the track feels spacious; her strong voice, the various cello melodies, finger-picked guitar, and percussive slaps are panned and separated, breathing into one another. Live, sheltered from a sudden storm in a tiny tractor shed, Wolf gradually weaves the song into shape, each layer perfectly visible for an instant as she threads it into place. Though it takes a full two minutes longer to perform, seeing the bones of the track laid bare does much to peel back the artistry at work in Laura Wolf’s songwriting. Hearing them sewn up and refreshed on Stitch One, the songs take on a grandiose new scale. It’s a wholly different experience, but a rewarding one if you give them time to reveal themselves.

Perhaps the only fault in those live sessions, and live looping in general, is the destructive electronic effects of piling on so many layers. And if the live version of “Good” is any indication, Laura Wolf’s songs are dense; she pauses to add handclaps and slaps to the bridge of her cello for percussion as well as two switches from her primary instrument to the guitar slung over her back. The sounds end up squashed, each piece losing some of its distinct tonal character.

Stitch One does away with the distortion, and the clarity allows the remarkable amount of arranged detail to spring out at you. “Circles” gains a ghostly instrumental interlude with melodic screeching as the strings flutter in the distance. The added low end on “Body Part” drives the beat harder, giving the track an epic, anthemic feel, and the slight solo just before the outro feels gritty but optimistically adventurous.

For the most part, Laura Wolf’s vocals lean towards folk, but there’s a clear theatrical element at key parts that heightens the emotional drama at play. This influence is most keenly felt on “Stitch Two,” where her intense vibrato meanders through folk guitar, erupts in a pre-climactic roar, and descends back into gentle arpeggiations before her triumphant belting dissolves into multi-part harmony. By comparison, the slow, heartbreaking story of “Chinese Finger Trap” contains a few lofty moments, but takes a more straightforward melodic approach to sifting through the rubble of a broken relationship.

Wolf ends her first EP with a brooding instrumental that serves as the title track. “Stitch One” blooms out of a mournful yet cinematic melody; the scope feels huge, suggesting wide-open spaces while filling them with slight dissonances that press in at the margins. But steadily over the course of the song, brighter and bolder harmonies slip in until the track is spilling over with light at its close. It's a fitting end for a record so invested in the healing power of process.

REVIEW: Caitlin Pasko - Glass Period

Laura Kerry

For the better part of a decade, Caitlin Pasko has performed under the moniker Lacrymosa. For the first time, though, she has released an album under her own name, a move that signals the intimacy of the new work. Comprised of subdued piano-based folk- and baroque-pop songs, Glass Period is as fragile and transparent as its name suggests.

Written after the death of her father and a difficult breakup that occurred shortly after, Glass Period is a meditation on loss. In the course of six songs, Pasko explores the varied scope of grief, moving from monumental reflection in the first song, “Barking Dog” (“You're born alone / And you die alone / But what about the time in between?”) to the small but achingly difficult act of throwing out the shampoo bottle that a loved one left behind in the second track, “Favorite Dessert.” In the third song, she remembers her subject as she has seen him and pictures him as she hasn’t.

In the latter half of Glass Period, Pasko starts to move beyond grief. In “Me Alone,” she repeats, “If you want to be alone then be alone, be alone” in different phrasings and tones—from a legato elegy to a dainty staccato—as if experimenting with the notion of being on her own. Throughout the whole album, Pasko maintains a similar sense of immediacy, perhaps the inevitable result of working through real events through her art. When she addresses her fears in the past tense in the “The Still” and intensifies the song after declaring, “I want to walk up to the tracks, hold my arms up, tilt my head back,” it feels like genuine catharsis, both on the part of the listener and the artist. As the song settles again, she sings, “I'm not that bad / I just want my feeling back,” and, answering her own wishes, the next song begins with a snippet of laughter from a recording session. “I’m going to keep going,” Pasko says after inhaling and before launching into a the final song in which she asks, “How lucky am I?”

Despite all of the immediacy, however, Glass Period also exhibits restraint, as well as a cleverness that requires critical distance. Though the compositions are mostly minimal, made up of sparse vocal lines, loose-sounding keys, and accents of saxophone and a few other effects, Pasko experiments with structure throughout the EP. None of the songs follow a typical verse-chorus pattern. In “Barking Dog,” for example, she returns to an anchoring phrase, “There’s a reason why the dog is barking,” but wanders around it, and in “Me Alone,” the refrain itself wanders. “The Still,” in contrast, has three distinct parts that build to a peak in the form of forcefully played piano chords with a low hum effect.

In a gorgeously delicate album, the one component that seems to be lacking is a rise in the vocals; even in the emotional climax of “The Still,” Pasko still sings relatively softly, as she does elsewhere in Glass Period. Because of this, though, the album favors subtlety. The listener follows as the vocal melody quietly descends on the phrase “float down” and in the slight wavering on in the repetitions of “I’m right” in the last song, attuned to the small variations that arise in the quiet. Muted and exquisite, Caitlin Pasko’s album is a testament to the beauty that can arise even in the most painful of circumstances.

PREMIERE: Adler Hall - (Tourist)

Laura Kerry

Parentheses are useful tools. They represent a whisper, an interlude in time, or, by the implied aside, they draw attention to space. In Adler Hall’s new album, parentheses do all this and more. (Tourist), the artist’s debut full-length and first full release under that name (he put out an EP, 2013’s Circumambulate, under his given name, John Henry Hoagland), exists in liminal spaces. Surrounded by field recordings from Japan and Brooklyn, where Hoagland lives, the tracks flow from one to the next, building a lush story space out of conversations, ambient noise, and the thoughtful compositions of the artist’s “bedroom orchestra.”

Weaving a coherent thread through (Tourist) is an observational narrator reporting from experience at a slight remove. He talks of struggling “To make conversation / Land in all the places that we’d rather be / Than New York” in the jaunty rock verse on “Half”; he sings, “If I keep my voice down here / You know that I’m a tourist here” in the London cathedrals of the gorgeously meditative “Tourist, Pt. 1”; and he hedges on the synth-pop-infused “Cicada,” “I’ll be here for hours / If you stick around / And make me think I’ll be alright.”

But Adler Hall doesn’t hedge when it comes to writing and production of the album. Calling on his college studies in music theory and composition and the production help of Odd Gift Records’ Kyle Joseph, Adler Hall has crafted a beautiful and polished work. An album about moving through unfamiliar places, (Tourist) instantly welcomes listeners into its own rich space.

PREMIERE: Adler Hall - Half / Tourist Pt. 1

Laura Kerry

Perhaps an equally useful conversation topic for 20-somethings as what we studied in college is what we wish we had. As we wander further from the time when our only expectation was to learn, what shape of lens do our minds form? With what tools do we wish we were armed?

Adler Hall—better known as John Henry Hoagland, or to friends (among whom I count myself, for full disclosure), Henry—studied music theory and composition, but he could just as easily have studied English. Perennially thoughtful, Henry approaches music like a text, carefully constructing themes and imagery in the signifying space between music and words. In his first EP, Circumambulate, he orchestrated five quietly beautiful, impressionistic tunes that approached meaning as the album title suggests: walking—or rather, gracefully ambling—around the perimeter.

If the John Henry Hoagland of Circumambulate explored ideas, Adler Hall seems to lean more towards narrative. On “Half,” the story of a night, the song moves in a graspable arc from sparse, bouncing rock bass and percussion to a swell of trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, and euphoric vocal melodies. Lyrics such as, “Struggle to make conversation / Land in all the places we’d rather be than New York,” concretize the story’s space with an approachable specificity.

Despite the personal nature of the story in “Half,” it’s “Tourist Pt. 1” that embraces a more aching intimacy. Ebbing and flowing over the heartbeat-like pulse of bass in a verse-chorus pop structure, but invoking the measured intelligence of composer Adler Hall’s bedroom orchestration, the song builds toward the chorus, “Nothing is holy / Nothing ‘round here, not my skin or your name.” Hitting on the satisfying intersection between poetic imagery—Homeric lotus-eaters and the catacombs of London cathedrals make an appearance—and tangible narrative (“Rest your face against my collar”), Henry exercises a literary mind. With these two gorgeous new songs and more to come in late summer or early fall, though, let’s be glad he opted for music.