Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Record Review: Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place

When discussing Julianna Barwick’s music, I often speak of the dream-state her records so frequently conjure. I hate to lean on this analogy too heavily, but the intrinsic qualities of her sound—layers of ambient synth; hypnotic, choir-of-one vocal loops; sonic towers of reverb—feel like they’ve always been here, hidden amidst the negative space of so many less patient experimental genres. Barwick’s two previous records—both short displays of her unique process—were individuated exercises in tone, and as such held up extremely well as both sources for mental and emotional immersion, and as simple background music. Perhaps recognizing the limitations of too concentrated an aesthetic, Barwick has opened up her sound ever-so-slightly on her appropriately titled debut LP, The Magic Place, expanding her productions from drifting, barely-there soundscapes to swooning, three-dimensional songs—and all without sacrificing the astral touch and angelic nature that grounds her work in our base emotions.

The Magic Place begins with “Envelop,” which as a title could stand as a thesis statement for the entirety of Barwick’s catalogue thus far; here, as a table-setting intro, it casts a similar spell as her prior work, cascading with wordless harmonies and thickly blanketed volleys of looped piano and synth. It should go without saying, but music like this subsists on mood, and while actual words mean very little here, Barwick manages to drop hints toward proper phrasing that illuminate the themes running through all her music. On “Keep Up the Good Work,” Barwick seems concerned with the passing of time, perhaps encouraging the listener to compartmentalize their listening activity while her skyward incantations echo the patience and resolve typically preferred by the more cerebral amongst her sect. The naked piano chords of “Cloak” are about as un-analytical as “ambient” can get, however, and as the album segues through the kaleidoscopic drone of “White Flag” towards its even more tangibly pronounced second side, it’s clear Barwick works in an intuitive manner unlike almost anyone I could associate with her style.

A good example of this newfound breadth is “Vow,” which works almost like a folk song, alternating twinkling piano keys with what sounds almost like an upwardly lilting woodwind phrase piped in from some late-'60s Greenwich Village love-in. The curiously titled “Bob in Your Gait” follows, and it may be the single best song she’s written. Again anchoring the undercurrents of drifting synth with piano chords and a painfully intimate vocal performance, the track’s subtle glide registers the most acutely emotional transference of feeling I’ve encountered on record all year. It’s actually a bit of a head-fake in the context of the album, though, as “Prizewinning” soon enters with a rudimentary rhythmic pulse before pivoting on a brave march of percussion for upwards of seven minutes. As the climax of The Magic Place, “Prizewinning” is appropriately visceral where much of this album is meditative, yet Barwick wisely strips the accoutrements back to the barest of essentials for the closing passage of “Flown.” Here the pastoral build swirls in place before giving way to the gentlest hint of piano, and as the album closes with nothing but the ringing tone of ivories, Barwick closes the circle on one of the most airtight records of the year.

With such a singularly unique approach to minimalist composition, some of the growth exhibited on The Magic Place can be easy to overlook. But with an approach seemingly limited by its own concentrated aesthetic, it’s impressive to see Barwick so bravely accentuate her sound without losing the emotional thread so important to elevating this above your average, run-of-the-mill ambient excursion. Until Barwick oversteps her stylistic range—which seems unlikely given her uncommonly sensitive relationship to pure sound—her music should remain in the enviable position of being stridently experimental yet openly functional. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful, soothing document finding its way to your ears this year, and luckily The Magic Place offers rewards well beyond its surface elegance. This is truly music worth living with. [InRO]

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