Review Summary: We are sparks of light, but we hide it.
In reading the backstory of Devon Church and Aleksa Palladino – the husband and wife pairing at the heart of New York City outfit Exitmusic – one trinket of information quickly stands out: that the couple chose to tie the knot in Southern California, at a scenic outpost overlooking Mulholland Drive. And listening to their work on Passage
, the record which they released earlier this year under their label, Secretly Canadian, it’s hard to escape the sense that Church and Palladino’s decision – to make the road the symbolic venue of their personal and professional union – is a fitting one. For as it turns out, the married duo – along with drummer Dru Prentiss and electronics maestro Nicholas Shelestak – have a knack for producing melodramatic, wrecked-torch music that constantly veers between the theatrical and the bombastic, all while sustaining a strong undercurrent of cinematic appeal throughout.
And much like the best forms of visual cinema, the bulk of Exitmusic’s work is soul-stirring; sometimes even downright guttural. “We want our music to confront people in a gentle but powerful way, to make them feel something,” explains guitarist and keyboardist Devon Church. “To feel human again,” chimes in Palladino. “To remind people, and even us, to let yourself be vulnerable,” she adds. The New York native, of all people, would know, for it is none other than her vocal work which leads the bulk of Exitmusic’s assault on Passage
. Palladino’s voice, best described as a dynamic cross between the transcendent energies of Sigur Ros’ Jonsi Birgisson and the raw operatic power of fellow American Zola Jesus, has an ethereal, chamber-of-souls vitality to it that colours every track on Passage
with a sense of restless urgency. But Palladino is clearly not content with merely being a vessel, for she also takes it upon herself to channel across to listeners the sense of one who has been filled with a world-weary resignation, wearing on Passage
not just her heart but an assortment of bruises accumulated from across the ages as well.
But while her vocal exhortations are themselves frequently atmospheric and otherwordly, they also provide a sense of deep inner wisdom and forbearance – an outline to the unseen, if you will. In fact at times it almost feels as if Palladino knows that there is an impending struggle against some invisible peril waiting for her on the horizon. Take, for instance, the opening bars of mid-album track “White Noise”, in which she breathes huskily, “Christ’s on the cross as it’s illustrated/I’m body soft and disintegrated/I’m in this self half-illuminated.” The delivery is sufficiently heavy-handed that you can’t help but wonder if the singer is indeed steeling herself for an upcoming battle with her inner demons. But while Palladino, who had been writing and recording her own songs since her early teens, is now the main defining feature of Exitmusic, she is quick to drive home the point that her husband remains a vital part of the outfit’s musical endeavours. “I still wonder if I hadn't started recording with Devon, if I ever would have finished a song,” she says. “We got a computer and recording software and really started to experiment with it and explore things together. That's when it became a real project," she adds.
Indeed, a closer listen to Passage
suggests that Church is the type of player-performer who does a bunch of things that generally don’t show up on the stat sheet. “The Wanting”, for example, builds from the back, relying heavily on the tension created by Church’s sparse piano notes in order to capitalize on the spaces left behind by Palladino’s vocal performance. The results are predictably harrowing and – dare I say it – majestic. Then there’s “The Modern Age”, which operates as a function of Church’s terse, yet steadily building guitar work, Shelestak’s minimalist sampling, and Prentiss’ cascading drums. It’s no small coincidence that these three pivotal features end up serving as the launchpad for the album’s most memorable refrain, which takes place when Palladino belts out, “Oh, holding out for another way!/Oh, on the run from the modern age!” at the end of each iteration of the song’s chorus. Elsewhere, Church’s manipulation of the riotous swirl of brooding keys that form the core of album-closer “Sparks of Light” is the perfect scene-setter for another one of Palladino’s lines, which itself is a perfect summation of the nature of contrast and juxtaposition behind Exitmusic’s work: “The yellows of the street are bleeding out again, bleaching the warnings of the darkness,” she exhorts.
But while all this is well and good, Passage
is not without its difficulties. To begin with, for this reviewer at least, the album does feel a little tail-heavy, an observation which is not helped by the fact that some of the opening cuts seem slightly rougher around the edges (the sense around the title track and “The Night”, for instance, is that the cuts are less thought-out and unrefined as compared to later pieces like “The Modern Age” and “The Cold”). Elsewhere, as one might expect from a band that focuses exclusively on creating latent atmospherics and pop noise that revolve around an operatic vocalist, the tracks often run the risk of bleeding together and sounding a tad same-y after the first twenty minutes or so. Ultimately though, these are minor gripes for what is an otherwise solid debut from a band which looks poised to make waves in the independent music scene for years to come.