Album of the Week: Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place (2011)

“I feel big, you know what I mean? Like, not big in the sense of weight, like, gaining weight or nothin’ like that. Like colossal.”

***

I guess I can believe it’s been 10 years, especially because the last one has felt so long. Still, Julianna Barwick’s debut feels big, which is all the more impressive considering how little equipment went into its recording. Here, it’s just her multi-tracked vocals and one or two instruments added in.

With hardly any discernible lyrics and a consistent, tried-and-true approach, Barwick’s music can be difficult to write about. Wyndham Wallace of The Quietus admitted as much, writing that “Critics have fallen over themselves to conjure up grand metaphors that encapsulate the experience” of her music. There have been comparisons to Enya, Eno, Cocteau Twins, and any other classic music so often described as “ethereal”. But really, it’s not that deep. Barwick described herself as “a pretty happy, easy-going person who is really excited about life.”

By her own account, Barwick always loved to sing. And so, by simply improvising vocal lines and layering the .wav files in GarageBand, she made her breakthrough album. There’s a good video from the Magic Place era that shows her doing it:

It’s not hard to reason why Barwick has named her albums The Magic Place, Nepenthe (“that which chases away sorrow”), or Healing Is a Miracle. There is peace in her music. “White Flag” was always my favorite, and it’s kind of hard to describe without sounding corny (like the gates of heaven opening?) I will say that early 2011 was not a particularly great time in my life and this was music like I’d never heard before, simultaneously calming and exhilarating. Back then, Asthmatic Kitty wrote that “Bob in Your Gait” “sounds the way humans should treat one another.” In a much more recent interview, Julianna said, “I’ve heard from a lot of people that The Magic Place in particular has gotten a lot of people through some dark times in their life, so I’m really glad for that. That makes me feel really good…” You can add me to that list!

I like everything she’s done, and the extended versions of Healing Is a Miracle from last year really blew me away. But it’s hard for me to find any faults in The Magic Place. Even its sequencing is flawless. “Envelop” starts the record off by doing just that, drawing the listener in. “Flown” is a perfect conclusion, like lying down in bed at the end of a gratifying day. I’ve been a fan since this release and Julianna Barwick’s music is a treasure. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to see her perform live.

Check out The Magic Place on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Tor Lundvall’s Under the Shadows of Trees (2003)

Not gonna lie, when I discovered this album I assumed Tor Lundvall was someone in Scandanavia, perhaps making experimental records for Oslo’s Rune Grammofon label. But no, my man Tor is a good ol’ American like me, born in Jersey and based in Long Island. His self-described “ghost ambient” music is soothing, spectral and perfect for Fall, the spookiest season.

Lundvall’s primary output is his paintings, and his website hosts a gallery where you can view hundreds of them. The album cover above is a good representation of what you’ll find: tree-filled landscapes as well as costumed characters who are occasionally a bit creepy. And his painting style is absolutely reflected in the music: pastoral and gentle tones abound.

I’ve probably mentioned before that I love music with no drums, and like a lot of ambient music, Under the Shadows of Trees fits that description. It is a a collection of reverb-soaked synthesizer and piano pieces, many featuring vocals with discernible lyrics (“Distant Children” is almost a pop song) or muted cries (adding to the “ghost” theme).

At just over an hour, Under the Shadows of Trees is fairly long and many tracks sound the same, but this is rarely a problem for me when it comes to ambient music. If quiet, contemplative full-lengths are your thing, then this is a beautiful choice. On its Bandcamp page, Lundvall suggests that listeners play the album outside as the sun sets, “just as the evening ghosts call softly from the woods”.

Listen to Under the Shadows of Trees on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Brian Eno’s Before and After Science (1977)

What a wonderland of a zoo, a cross between steaming smoke, atonal mystery and hanging, frothy ditties…

Brian Eno is an agent from some other time and some other place who seems to know something that we don’t but should…

There’s a scene in Y tu mamá también where the protagonists are driving across rural Mexico listening to Brian Eno’s “By This River”, and one of the stoned teens says “This song rules!” As someone who spent many a stoned teenage night with Before and After Science, I absolutely identify with this moment. Like the quotes above (from Down Beat and Crawdaddy! respectively) suggest, Eno was tapping in to something otherworldly with Before and After Science, a record that took two years to compose and represents an artist at a peak of his musical powers (Low, “Heroes” and Cluster & Eno were recorded in the same time period).

Like his preceding masterpiece Another Green World, Before and After Science mixes the art-rock of Eno’s first two albums with the ambient sounds he pioneered. But unlike Another Green World, the two sides are distinctly separate in their styles.

If you’re familiar with Eno’s career, you probably know of his Oblique Strategies. This creation method takes the form of a deck of cards, with suggestions like “Ask your body” or “Not building a wall but making a brick”. Created by Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, this technique was utilized heavily by Eno in this period and inspired many, if not all, of the songs on Before and After Science (apparently over 100 tracks were written for it).

“Look at September, Look at October”, Peter Schmidt

Schmidt’s contributions to Before & After Science are particularly notable. Apart from co-authoring the Oblique Strategies cards, four of Schmidt’s prints (including the image above) were included in the original packaging of the album. Schmidt’s work inspired Eno, and the prints included in Before & After Science seem to reflect the meditative, autumnal quality of the album.

As I mentioned before, the two sides of Before & After Science have different styles. With the exception of “Energy Fools the Magician”, the first side is a collection of upbeat, vocal-lead art rock tracks, with a standout in “Backwater”, featuring drumming from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit. It’s a great bunch of songs, but the second side makes the album a 5-star masterpiece, and for my money the greatest work of Eno’s career.

After the pastoral “Here He Comes”, “Julie With…” creates a celestial atmosphere featuring Eno’s Moog synth and bells. It is a dazzling six-and-a-half minutes. “By This River” is a meditative yet moving song made with Eno’s Cluster buddies Moebius and Roedelius. It has a descending piano line that embodies Schmidt’s watercolor depictions of nature. “Through Hollow Lands” is an instrumental piece that acts as a sort of preamble to the album’s final track.

If the heavenly sprawl of Eno’s many lengthy ambient works were distilled into a sublime four-minute “pop” song, the result would be “Spider and I”. Indeed, the album closer achieves the great beauty of “Discreet Music”, while the lyrics paint a youthful fantasy: “We sleep in the morning / We dream of a ship that sails away / A thousand miles away…”

Of course, Eno has continued to make stellar music over the past 40+ years, and any fan of ambient or work labelled “art rock” may have a different favorite in his discography. After years of listening to it, Before and After Science remains his dearest treasure to me.

Listen to Before and After Science on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Julee Cruise’s The Voice of Love (1993)

Perhaps my favorite quality in music is a dreamy atmosphere. From rap (Blowout Comb) to jazz (In a Silent Way) to rock (any Cocteau Twins LP), many of my favorite albums have more in common with the lush trappings of ambient and new age music than is standard within their respective genres. And when it comes down to it, it doesn’t get much more dreamy than Julee Cruise.

Immortalized by her appearances in Twin Peaks, Julee Cruise has been making music since the 80s and her collaborations with David Lynch are well known. Since I first watched Blue Velvet in high school I was enthralled by her song “Mysteries of Love”, and I quickly bought her debut album Floating Into the Night on CD. Floating, by far her most well known project, features such legendary tracks as “Falling” (the Twin Peaks theme), “The World Spins” and the aforementioned “Mysteries”. But it wasn’t until years later that I discovered The Voice of Love, her underrated follow-up album that almost matches the consistency of the debut.

Some reggae in my Julee Cruise? Yes please! The Voice of Love opens with “This Is Our Night”, which bobs along like a Sly & Robbie remake of “Falling”. While “Friends For Life” also executes something of a reggae rhythm, the rest of the album is less surprising in its styles: “Movin’ in on You” recalls the doo-wop balladry of “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart”, “Up in Flames” sounds like an ominous vocal take over the Bookhouse Boys theme (complete with those jazzy drum brushes), and the goofy “Kool Kat Walk” is almost a reprise of “Audrey’s Dance”.

Donna sings along to Cruise’s “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart”, via Welcome to Twin Peaks

According to a 2018 interview with Pitchfork, Julee Cruise is not a fan of The Voice of Love. “It sounds like soup and the songs are bad”, she said. “They put on too much fucking reverb.” Surely the album isn’t for everyone, especially if it’s not for Cruise herself. It’s largely a retread of the first album, and Lynch’s lyrics are no deeper than the ones on …Baby One More Time. But if you, like me, love those earlier songs and truly believe that Twin Peaks is some life-changing shit, The Voice of Love is absolutely worth checking out.

And, if you have Spotify, you can stream it here.