Guitarist Mary Halvorson
has displayed her playing and composing talents in a number of settings, but this second release by her song-based band, Code Girl, is one of the most focused and intense things she has ever done.
Halvorson and her quintet constructed music around eight of her own poems, each written in a specific poetic form. The results are fluid and improvisational art songs, in the manner of complex but catchy British art rock groups of the 70s, such as Henry Cow, Hatfield and the North and Slapp Happy. That connection is made very explicit by the presence here of Robert Wyatt
, one of the most respected musicians of that scene, who sings on three tracks.
Wyatt's high-scaled, raspy voice fits so snugly into the airy vocal harmonies and vertical guitar and trumpet lines of "The Lemon Trees." It sounds like a lost track from his classic album, Rock Bottom
, (Virgin, 1974). He also hovers above the skewed guitar strumming and pale horn sounds of "Bigger Flames" with quavery vulnerability and serves as a gentle counterpoint to Halvorson's roaring guitar freak-out on "Walls And Roses."
The other tracks on the CD are equally potent, each creating unique moods. "Last Minute Smears" is a mournful jumble of lamenting female voices, soaring horns, stalking bass and subtle guitar centered around a found poem taken from the actual testimony of Supreme Court Justice Brent Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing. Halvorson's slippery, zigzagging guitar notes rumble through "Muzzling Unwashed" in concert with Michael Formanek
's bass and Tomas Fujiwara
's drumming. Then Amirtha Kidambi
and Maria Grand
's high voices and Adam O'Farrill
's strong trumpet emerges, unfolding into a passage of lyrical jazz beauty. "A Nearing" operates in a semi-classical Spanish mode, Formanek's trembling solo leads into a wary bolero where Kidambi's expressive voice melts into a tangle with the guitar and horns while the rhythm section's taut work keeps a firm foundation going underneath.
"Mexican War Streets" has Kidambi singing carefully over bowed bass and slowly picked guitar, creating a dreamlike effect carried through by the horns. Then Halvorson really cranks up the volume, exploding into heavy prog rock riffing looped and phased until it sounds like Robert Fripp
in one of his most manic King Crimson solos. In contrast to that ,"Artlessly Falling" itself is a gentle duet between Kidambi and Halvorson with the singer's voice bending and shaping cryptic lyrics over billowing waves of tumbling, skidding guitar.
Halvorson, Formanek and Fujiwara have previously demonstrated their compatibility in their trio, Thumbscrew. Here they serve as a tight musical core that grounds all the complex interplay and makes it musically accessible. This, along with the gorgeous singing, brings emotion and poignance to the songs, even when their lyrics are oblique. This band creates a dazzling sound world and this set of songs is the most powerful and haunting body of work Mary Halvorson has achieved to date in her busy career.
The Lemon Trees; Last-Minute Smears; Walls and Roses; Muzzling Unwashed; Bigger Flames; Mexican War Streets
(Pittsburgh); A Nearing; Artlessly Falling.
Robert Wyatt: vocals (1, 3, 5).