Review Summary: Like a long, hot bath (in the middle of winter).streaming in full on NPR, officially released on February 22, 2011
In a time where the music world seems to have a very limited number of routes left to explore in terms of sound or genre, there is one style that has slowly been articulating itself over the past decade: A’capella music. Music without music, essentially, relying solely on vocals. There are only two other records I can think of that have been a’capella: Bjork’s masterstroke Medulla
and one from over thirty years ago, Jean Ritchie’s Ballads from Her Appalachian Family Tradition
. Two very different albums. The former took vocals of all kinds – from throat singing to beat boxing – and reconfigured them through technology to sound nothing like their sources. The latter is a long journey through seemingly ancient Appalachian folk songs. Neither album is entirely a’capella, though: Bjork’s had occasional piano flourishes, and Ritchie’s had occasional dulcimer. That wasn’t the point though: these were albums built on the strength and pliability of the human voice, and the rare instrument did not deter from this.
And so this brings me to this current release, Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place
. Barwick has been operating for a few years now, creating songs that are driven solely by her voice. She loops a multitude of her vocals, harmonizing over each other, drenched in reverb, and constructs gorgeous melodies out of them. 2009’s EP Florine
, her most recent offering, was twenty minutes of her soft vocal layering, and it could have gone on twice as long. Well, I need not look any further, for that dream has arrived in her 2nd album, The Magic Place
So, is it a dream come true? Well, not entirely. But let’s start with the good news.
Barwick has always proven she has a lovely voice, and this remains indisputable here. Her range is magnificent, able to produce the full spectrum of a small, professional woman’s choir with just her own voice. The melodies and harmonies she wrings from these songs are beautiful, and the gauzy reverb adds a glorious sheen over the whole product, with a churchly dose of echo inspired by her childhood. She is capable of hitting inhumanly high notes, such as in “White Flag,” the album’s centerpiece. Whether her pitch is technologically altered or not is not able to be traced, but I would like to believe she is producing every note on this album herself. It’s an impressive feat.
Barwick’s formula is a predictable one, though, and one can realize this as early as the first ten minutes. She layers what sounds like hundreds of her own vocals atop each other, with one or two vocal lines carrying out the song’s main melody. However beautiful, though, these songs tend to drag on for extra time. They are extremely repetitive, and so even though these tracks plunge the listener into a lush, joyous, relaxing atmosphere, it can be a little tiresome to hear the same twenty-five second melody sung over and over. This fate can make otherwise outstanding tracks like “Cloak” and the opening “Envelop” seem slightly overlong.
That being said, there are a good handful of satisfying surprises strung throughout. At the end of the aforementioned “Envelop,” a delicate piano line comes into focus and lets the song drift off into the ether with poise. There’s a bass on “Vow.” Both “Bob in Your Gait” and “Prizewinning” deviate from the pattern significantly, making each one an instant highlight. Words are given to “Bob in Your Gait,” almost discernible – sort of like a choral Grouper. “Prizewinning,” though the longest, is also the most enjoyably different: it has a low synth pulse and more complex melody over its six minutes, with some percussion in the back half. These songs rely less on her voice and more on the whole atmosphere, perhaps their biggest strength.
This album is hard to write about. I can’t quite decide if I like it or just sort of think it’s decent. It has very obvious strengths, but it also has very worrisome setbacks. The melodies and harmonies are undeniably beautiful, and her voice is a gorgeous one. She knows exactly where to add the small extra instruments, and when to hold back from piling on the layers of vocals. She also, however, tends to indulge herself quite heavily, letting the songs repeat themselves for a bit too long. There’s nothing wrong with long songs, it’s simply that she does not shift them enough except in the most subtle of ways. If this album were about six minutes shorter, it would be damn near perfect, chopping a bit off of every song. But as it is, I can only call this an astonishingly beautiful but slightly plodding set of songs.
Key Tracks: White Flag, Prizewinning
Final Score: 3.6/5.0