November 30, 2023

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Tenci: A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing Album Review

Jess Shoman’s 2020 debut album as Tenci, My Heart Is an Open Field, was an indie-folk record that pulled you into an entirely empty space. It moved in slow, cyclical waltzes, bleeding with the unrushed freedom that follows a forfeiture of hope. Shoman and their bandmates stamped the songs with echoes of clomps and clacks rattling into an open room, and they frequently repeated passages several times just to see how it would feel. All of this drizzled around Shoman as they sang in brief snippets as surrendered as “I can’t pretend I’m not a dog tied to a porch” in a voice like warped wood. The album sounded, often sonically and occasionally lyrically, like it was made at the bottom of a well—an image that Shoman returns to repeatedly on Tenci’s fuller, more hopeful second album, A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing.

My Heart was Shoman’s breakout moment as a songwriter, and A Swollen River is foremost a triumph for Tenci, the band. Even though Shoman was almost always accompanied on My Heart, whether by light drumming, woodwind accents, or near-unrecognizable sounds, the album felt solitary through and through; now, Shoman sounds reinforced. Their three bandmates—bassist Isabel Reidy, multi-instrumentalist Curtis Oren, and drummer Joseph Farago—have formed a taut circle and cultivated a noise-country-ish sound that both spotlights and strengthens the vocals. The band sounds remarkably in sync with each step and turn, exhibiting the chemistry of a quartet with rare innate telepathy. Shoman, meanwhile, alternates between serenely reflective and totally vicious. “I’m as quiet as can be,” they rasp on “Be,” and then growls the last word again: “be.” What follows is a captivating sax solo from Oren that perfectly matches Shoman’s messy contemplations on their own visibility or lack thereof in the eyes of another.

Reidy, Oren, and Farago hang back as often as they step forth, resisting the easy “folk artist’s ‘full band’ sophomore album” trap and allowing Shoman’s talent for harnessing silence to flourish and grow. The band’s discretion paired with Shoman’s gift for commanding attention toward an isolated word or phrase recalls some of the defining indie-folk artists of the ‘90s, like Bill Callahan and Chan Marshall. On the mostly acoustic “Great Big Elephant,” which sounds like it was recorded on a remote driveway and follows “Be” with brilliant contrast, the accompanying touch is barely detectable yet just enough to add a sense of grandeur. Even when the band inches towards eerie-nursery-rhyme territory for a couple of consecutive songs in the album’s middle section, they still manage to hypnotize, so that the impending fireworks explode even louder.

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