Friday, November 9, 2012

Sounds of Autumn VII: Jessica Bailiff and Zelienople

With this seventh installment, Sounds of Autumn comes to a close. It was fun while it lasted, and I suppose I'll do another one next year. Maybe even alternate with the seasons? Who knows. I've decided to end this review series with two magnificent new releases from the likes of dronepop goddess Jessica Bailiff and Zelienople, who, in my opinion, are one of the finest music groups Chicago has to offer.

Jessica Bailiff - "At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky" (2012) [Kranky]

It most certainly has been a while since Ohio-based songwriter Jessica Bailiff gifted the world with her music. One of the only artists I can think of who is able to harness the strengths of high volume with the fragility of quiet folk music and "slowcore," Bailiff has been enchanting the world with her unique vision for over a decade, though her solo output had mysteriously stopped after a short-run EP in 2008. Apparently Bailiff had secretly begun writing new material after extensive touring on live guitar for folk group Boduf Songs, so one can only imagine my simultaneous elation and confusion upon receiving an email from Kranky, essentially saying "Oh hey, you remember Jessica Bailiff? She recorded a new album after four years of silence. Here it is!" I normally try to avoid the "slack-jawed out of sheer amazement" look, but, upon receiving that e-mail, I had to manually hold my mouth shut.

So, what does Jessica Bailiff have to say after not even a peep for almost half a decade? Repeated listens of At the Down-Turned Jagged Edge of the Sky shows that she has much to tell us. It wasn't until I started writing this review that I noticed the partial profile hidden behind the bouquet on the album cover, which I find to be the perfect allegory to listening to this album. Bailiff has always been a practitioner of the "blurred" sound, mixing low-end distortion with multiple layers of effects to the point where her guitar playing isn't so much an active display of songwriting as it is a complex array of sounds carefully jumbled together to create a flowing-yet-structured ambient base, and AtD-TJEotS is no different, though the volume has been decreased significantly in comparison to previous works. Bailiff's use of drums is more of a peripheral addition to the texture, furthering the pulsing lull of guitars, bass, and keyboards. Of course, no Jessica Bailiff review would be complete without mention of her dreamy, stylistically perfect voice, with whispery, droning qualities which complement the unique sort of "slow head-bobbing dronepop" which she provides us.

The sleepy alternative rock-tinged sounds Bailiff put forth with the (as expected) astonishingly good At the Down-Turned Jagged Edge of the Sky is everything I could have wanted from the Jessica Bailiff album I had no idea was coming out, let alone recorded. The soundtrack to quiet walks through lamplit neighborhoods or curling up by the fireplace with a good book and some tea. Available on both analog and digital formats via Kranky.

Zelienople - "The World Is A House On Fire" (2012) [Type]

Continuing with this week's "sleepy" theme as we put Sounds of Autumn to rest is Zelienople, arguably Chicago's "sleepiest" band. An impressionistic portrait in slightly varying shades of grey and blue, established Chicago trio Zelienople's music is the sound equivalent of a closed city street, bathed in patches of fluorescent light above a blotted-out sky. A picture of familiarity, stripped of its excess and left naked, leaving nothing but shut doors, closed windows, and bare sidewalks. In a world of straightforward sounds and musician's indulgence, Zelienople is truly one of a kind, reveling in extreme quiet and emptiness, filling the cracks with the soft hush of brushed percussion thin layers of keyboard drones.

The World Is A House On Fire shows Zelienople's beautiful mix of slowcore, jazz, and drone at its most sparse and free. Hazy and slow, we find a blurred distinction between the deliberately placed and the improvised. While this collection of songs are structured and obviously written out, the delicate sparseness of Matt Christensen and Brian Harding's songwriting leaves vast amounts of space for textural improvisation, which is still approached with hesitation so as not to break the album's overall solemn, dream-like stasis. Christensen's voice never raises above a half-whispered murmur, peacefully singing some of his strongest lyrical content. Drummer/percussionist Mike Weis has nearly become a household name in the experimental scene, and his talents, as well as his vast knowledge of jazz and east Asian percussion techniques, provides a wide array of sounds not often heard in Western music spheres, bordering at times on tribal beats, albeit played with the utmost sensitivity to volume.

Yet another triumph in Zelienople's discography, The World Is A House On Fire is a strong collection of what can only be classified as "lullabies for adults." The immense care put forth by Christensen, Harding, and Weis is not only wholly apparent, but greatly appreciated. No sound is out of place and nothing is unnecessary - truly the work of masters. Zelienople is worth your time, and I highly recommend you see them live. Breathtaking.

Stream the album via Soundcloud:

Copies are still available via Boomkat and Forced Exposure.


1 comment:

  1. I've been plugging "The House Is A World On Fire" like a madman here in LA. Every time it's 2AM and I have friends over after hitting the bar, that album goes straight on. I think that you nailed it by including it in your sounds of autumn series — it's release in late spring/early summer just as the weather was getting warm and the 6-month "Best Of" lists were coming out didn't do it any favors. The other album that it reminded me of was the classic, but forgotten, "Saint The Fire Show" by Fire Show. Both albums have that huge, echoing, melodic but ghostly (and so very quirky) vibe.


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