Review: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s Ambient Majesty Melts the Ice for Once on ‘Ears’
A core theme threading Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s slowly mushrooming discography is the glory of genesis, of becoming, of flustered incoherence straining towards coherence: Scraps of matter, raw and refined alike, hurtle sideways through space in accordance with an elusive choreography. In retrospect, each release the inventive Bay Area composer has committed to tape — a smattering of Bandcamp-only offerings like 2012’s Useful Trees and 2014’s Tides, and then last year’s excellent, aqueous Euclid — feels like a stepping stone culminating in her latest, Ears. In timbre and voice alike, the new LP is startlingly, richly fulsome, commingling the mysticism of Smithsonian Folkways LPs, IDM’s furrowed futurism, and the free-fall questing of Laurie Spiegel’s 1980 landmark, The Expanding Universe.
Working from a sonic palette that includes saxophones, flutes, clarinets, and the Buchla Music Easel synthesizer, Smith embraces the thermally cerebral. Initially, “First Flight” could double as intro music for an ’80s-era science program for children; tones scurry and flurry, clarifying into melody by degrees, until her impressionistic vocal emerges, transfiguring sonic chemistry into invocation. “When I Try, I’m Full” erupts in burbling glossolalia, with crystalline shards of synths, woodwind, and voice gushing upstream. “Envelop” evokes a stoned stroll through an enchanted forest thick with will ‘o the wisps and sentient, Casio SK-1-armed trees. The rather Enya-esque “Anthropoda” generates a singular ecosystem of competing scales, while “Stratus” suggests that a mashup of Boards of Canada and Morphine isn’t necessarily cause for distress. At the finish, percolating synthesizers, metronomes, and lowing saxophones play nice on the breathless, labyrinthine “Existence in the Unfurling,” with Smith’s oddly enunciated refrain — “sounds like fun” — serving as an inadvertent encapsulation of this record’s overall experience. Listeners who luxuriated in Euclid’s new-age, lightly psychedelic vibe will find much to savor in Ears, where Smith refines and sharpens her songwriting significantly.
But then there’s “Wetlands.” Simulated woodpeckers drill tree trunks as warm rehearsal sounds scatter and contract like flocks of geese; an odd squeak, as though someone was obsessively cleaning a window, rises in the mix like slow bile. As is, this is trademark, A+ Smith. She pushes things further, though, by summoning an unexpectedly organic groove, introducing a sinuous, electronically enhanced chant that is easily her most unimpeachable, memorable two minutes yet put to tape: a cross between explicitly ceremonial fare and Soul II Soul’s Club Classics: Vol. 1. Spring officially began a few weeks back, but Ears might be an ultimate soundtrack to the season, nicely suited to wind gusts rattling chimes, pollen saturating everything, the world waking up and, once again, becoming.