Released by Mary Halvorson's Code Girl, Artlessly Falling presents eight new compositions, each of which is structured around a specific poetic form with accompanying lyrics/poems by Halvorson herself. The forms represent a significant diversity of cultural origins and eras, including Japanese Tanka, 12th century Sestina, French Villanelle, and Malay Pantoum.
With each of the above sources arguably requiring deep study to become well-versed in, this central conceit might feel like a daring experiment, hubris, or a bit of both even for a MacArthur Genius Award recipient. Regardless of where one falls, the premise clearly provided fertile ground for Halvorson and her compatriots to put forward beautifully fecund music.
Halvorson's established guitar mastery and ability to intricately interweave genres is on full display, as are the distinctive vocals of Amirtha Kidambi, Michael Formanek's sinuous bass, and percussionist Tomas Fujiwara's, controlled whorl. These frequent collaborator's symbiotic playing is reinforced by Adam O'Farrill's erudite trumpet, Maria Grand's tenor sax and vocals, as well as guest singer Robert Wyatt's quavering voice.
Certainly a product of Artlessly Falling's overall structure, the compositions demand extreme flexibility and ingenuity to convincingly navigate the varied source material while delivering one improvisational height after another. For example, the deceptively simple initial track "Lemon Tree" forms an arc bookended by Wyatt's airy vocals with exceptional solos from O'Farrill and Fujiwara, whose bass drum pays homage to the rhythm and tone of traditional Bon festivals. One of the album's most penetrating pieces, composed in Found Poem form, follows immediately after. Notably, the lyrics consist of fragments extracted from Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's Senate testimony. The music rises from Fujiwara's funeral snare, Formanek's weighty bass, and Kidambi's mournful vocals to a peak of intensity; the collage of words is recontextualized into a powerful political statement of distress and lament.
The above are only examples of Artlessly Falling's potency. Halvorson does not color within lines and the album is rich with layers, both from composition to composition and often within each. On "Walls and Roses" Halvorson deploys her unmatched dexterity to oscillate seamlessly between distortion laden, art-rock sonic squalls and pointillistic precision. "Mexican War Streets (Pittsburgh)" is an unconventional ballad depicting the decay and transformation of a cityscape, formulated by lithe lines that enmesh the poignant lyrics. The closing "Artlessly Falling," one of the albums most challenging pieces, is yet another example of Halvorson's capacity to innovate. Here, her guitar becomes almost surreal as it cuts into and across the tumultuous interplay of textures laid down by her comrades.
Simply put Artlessly Falling does not disappoint. It confirms Halverson as a many faceted artist operating at the cutting edge both as composer and musician. The boundaries she crosses, however, never lead to full abstraction or subtle exploration of individual genres. It merges, melds, and evolves into a balance between these poles, perhaps one of the key elements defining her genius.
The Lemon Trees; Last-Minute Smears; Walls and Roses; Muzzling Unwashed; Bigger Flames; Mexican War Streets
(Pittsburgh); A Nearing; Artlessly Falling.
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