Review Summary: Both a transformation and a beautiful self-portrait.
The name “Tal Wilkenfeld” is one that’s been bubbling beneath the surface of popular music culture for a long time. Amidst all the praise for her skills and the criticism for her supposed status as an industry plant, there remains the fact that she’s still what you’d call a “musician’s musician.” She’s played with some of the best talents in the medium, ranging from Chick Corea to Herbie Hancock to Jeff Beck. But what’s a bit puzzling is the relative absence of any solo
recordings by Ms. Wilkenfeld. She recorded a jazz album in 2007, and then… well, nothing else. And while it was a solid record that put her bass work front-and-center, it didn’t really leave enough of an impact to let her emerge from the role of being a sideman.
But I think that might all change this year. Starting in 2016 with the new single “Corner Painter,” it was clear that we were witnessing a real transformation. A singer-songwriter was now emerging; armed with a booming acoustic bass and a commanding voice, Wilkenfeld came back with a very different sound than before. And before we could get a grasp on what was going on, she was now opening up for The Who and using completely different setlists than back in her jazz fusion days. Who knew she was such a good singer and songwriter on top of her bass skills? Still, nothing could prepare her fans for the 2019 bombshell that goes by the name of Love Remains
So what does Love Remains
sound like? Well, imagine if Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorious, Phoebe Bridgers, and 2010s Steven Wilson had a love child. The album is a beautiful mix of indie rock, progressive rock, folk, and jazz, yet it still manages to retain a clear razor-sharp vision throughout its runtime. The aforementioned “Corner Painter” is the song that opens it up, and it really is a great way to foreshadow everything else. The heavy guitars and expressive vocals are there, and yet some of that folk-driven balladry rears its head to give us some contrast. And that illustrates the dichotomy we hear on Love Remains
as a whole: heavy alternative rockers and lovely folk ballads. There are a few instances - such as the Phoebe Bridgers-esque title track or “Counterfeit” - where the two collide a bit as well. But for the most part, this album demonstrates how far Wilkenfeld can reach with her influences and alternating styles.
What’s more impressive is how she tends to let the music speak for itself. Her vocals and lyrics are great, but what really makes these songs shine is her talent for letting songs naturally unfold. It’s like any great TV show, where characters are shaped by their environments and events instead of the other way around. “One Thing After Another” initially seems like just a sweet little acoustic ballad, but suddenly blooms into something much grander once the clarinets and flutes emerge halfway in. It sounds like something you’d hear on Pet Sounds
. “Under the Sun” is a song that’s entirely shaped by the psychedelic sunset vibes it constantly exudes; the more Wilkenfeld can bend these atmospheres to her will, the more we get sucked in when any slight changes occur in the music. Even more interesting is the sparse “Haunted Love,” which is entirely driven by just vocals and bass. But with Wilkenfeld’s mastery of the bass as both a rhythmic and melodic instrument, she managed to craft a 6-minute ballad that never gets boring because of its natural ebb and flow. A few backing vocals and string effects help too, of course.
In all of this, there’s a ton of emotional weight that goes into the tracks. Most of the songs deal with typical topics like love and loss, but they’re explored with a complexity that puts them above many other love songs you’d normally hear. “One Thing After Another” is the most compelling example, as the tune details a relationship in its entirety as the woodwind instruments mirror each emotional peak and valley perfectly. “Pieces of Me” is another standout, as it talks about someone who only loves the narrator for certain things, picking and choosing what they like instead of being able to appreciate the whole picture. And really, “whole picture” is what I’d use to describe Love Remains
. It’s hard to find an album this complete and wholly satisfying on all fronts. Tal Wilkenfeld was able to take all the influences and sounds she’s absorbed over the years as a sideman and rearrange them into one beautiful portrait of herself. The only thing that worries me is the prospect that she might end up peaking too early, because it’s hard for me to imagine how she’d top this.