Julianna Barwick

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Sanguine (2006) , 7/10
Florine (2009), 6.5/10
The Magic Place (2011) , 7.5/10
Nepenthe (2013), 7/10
Will (2016), 6/10

Louisiana-based Julianna Barwick wove tapestries of looped ethereal vocals on the mini-album Sanguine (2006). The nine untitled vignettes sound like snippets of Enya wed to eerie instrumental and electronic sounds, but the whole is so warped and dilated to evoke something halfway between a female counterpart to David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name and yodeling folk music. Some of them create a symphony of ghostly echoes and galactic lullabies (notably the fourth untitled one, Red Tit Warbler and Sanguine), while others (notably Dancing With Friends) are inspired by childplays and ethnic chants, like a hippie version of Meredith Monk's lieder.

The arrangements were relatively harmless on the first mini-album. The EP Florine (Florid, 2009), instead, added the instrumental dimension; and each of the six songs is significantly longer than any of the debut's songs. Anjos employs the technique of minimalist repetition of simple melodic patterns (of keyboards) to create a deeply spiritual experience. The vocal polyphony of Choose is equally intricate and dense, with murky percussion setting the pace. The lazy litany Sunlight Heaven returns to the ecstatic hippie transcendence, and The Highest builds up until it resembles an Indian hymn, while the haunting spectral multi-layered howl of Cloudbank is almost an abstract remix of Cocteau Twins' vocalist Elizabeth Fraser.

The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty, 2011) is an a-cappella tour de force. The angelic overdubbed chanting of Envelop is the overture for the anthemic, iridescent crescendo of White Flag. The Magic Place emits Enya-like waves of alien breathing, pulsing towards nothingness, an art of reverbs and loops that Cloak sculpts into limping piano figures and Vow embeds in tinkling musical raindrops. Far from being only an ethereal meditation, the album includes moments of simple meandering in the minds of ordinary women, like Keep Up The Good Work that comes through as a remix of voices picked up in a square, or Prizewinning, that marches along as if documenting a journey of sorts. Flown closes the album with the most austere and convent-like atmosphere.
This work represents the moment when psychedelic music loses its psychedelic quality, and avantgarde vocal music becomes ordinary vocal music, and female singer-songwriting becomes abstract soundpainting but still grounded in highly personal experience.

The single Pacing (2013) lets a vocal fragment rise and fall with a friendly tide of tiny piano chords and whispered hums. This single de facto opened a new chapter in her career.

If the intent was to make a highly emotional album, Nepenthe (Dead Oceans, 2013) failed, because the result is hushed glacial ambient music, like a mechanical version of Harold Budd's Pavilion Of Dreams (the slow caressing fairy-queen magic of Labyrinthine) or an academic remix of David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name (Offing, which, for all purposes, is a psychedelic hymn for gradually ascending vocal drones). Her music is an engineering miracle, using simple syllables to evoke imposing natural landscapes, and especially a sense of loneliness, of floating weightless in the center of a galaxy, slowly drifting towards a black hole. The combination of strings and vocals is best for Zen meditation in the calm Look Into Your Own Mind (tenuous distortion segues into waves of superimposed syllables), but it achieves a rare tension in Pyrrhic that, introduced by a menacing string quartet, ends up shouting a wordless sermon to the wind. Her repertory of bliss-less incantations peaks with The Harbinger, whose waves of vocal drones suddenly turn symphonic, and even tense and nightmarish at the end. The more or less exotic Adventurer Of The Family is de facto an Enya , as is the conventional song (One Half), songs that simply state that she is breathing. In Forever her voice rises mermaid-like from aquatic piano chords and intones the one thing that truly looks like a song. The organ lends Crystal Lake the feeling of church music. The closing instrumental Waving To You is a simple loop of a melancholic melodic fragment, like a street version of Pachelbel's "Canon". The problem, of course, is that the songs tend to sound very similar to each other. Transitioning to a new song every three or four minutes actually detracts from the experience. A straight 30-minute song would perhaps do more justice to her meditative experience.

The EP Rosabi (2014) is instead mediocre.

Will (Dead Oceans, 2016) pushed the aesthetic of Pacing even further: simple and ultra-ethereal constructs with hardly any movement. Sometimes they feel like forest invocations, echoes bouncing around the valley, or the sounds heard by the foetus inside the womb. At worst, the songs are reduced to wall paper, like some new-age music of the 1980s: Beached, Big Hollow, Someway. At best, they are supreme cosmic meditations: St Apolonia, a shower of interlocking syllables and sparse violin and piano chords; and Wist, one of the most complex, an a-cappella Babelic confusion. Unfortunately the bad ones outnumber the good ones. In between there are songs in which very little happens: Nebula, a simple loop of reverbed wordless vocals and organ; Same, in which the melody evolves slowly over a sligthly distorted symphonic fluctuation. There is very little development. The synth arrangements (that replace the chamber arrangements of the past) are not sparse: they are amateurish. When the extremely slow piano elegy Heading Home evolves into a full-fledged hymn, it feels like a revolution. Too many of the "songs" (which are not really sung) sound like an ambient remix of Enya .

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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