In Brief: A strong showing from a feisty, eclectic artist. Forgive me for this, but I’m glad to have jumped on the “bandwaggon”.
Sometimes it seems as if my music collection is being slowly taken over by quirky female singer/songwriters with an unusual array of instruments at their disposal. It often seems like it’s the women in the “indie pop” genre who charm me the most – and it usually isn’t by way of sex appeal. (Though musical talent, in and of itself, is something that I’d consider sexy.) Looking back over the past several years, I’ve welcomed such artists as Vienna Teng, Eisley, KT Tunstall, Katie Herzig, Eleanor Friedberger, Kathryn Calder, Regina Spektor, and Kimbra into the fold, and it’s also worth mentioning that I’ve gone from not being able to stand Björk to elevating her into my pantheon of all-time favorite female artists. I’m not even sure I’d place all of those artists within the same genre – some are troublesome to stick a genre tag on to begin with! But it seems like there’s always room for one more artist in this vein, and so my latest acquisition in this category is a lovely little album called Originator by the classically trained singer/songwriter and gifted arranger Brooke Waggoner.
Originally from New Orleans, Waggoner now counts herself among a community of artists residing in Nashville, though that doesn’t mean you can stick her with either the “country” or “contemporary Christian” genre tags commonly associated with the city. If I had to describe her style, it’d be somewhere in between baroque piano pop and neo-classical, though not necessarily in the ways you’d expect. Beautiful choral vocals weave their way in and out of her songs, as if they had first been composed and performed in medieval courtyards. Yet there are very modern – and incredibly assertive – modern influences ranging from rock to jazz, that throw an intentional jolt into her otherwise soothing style. While her songs are all very melodic, several of them pack an unexpected punch, sometimes to the point where this album feels a bit schizophrenic. I enjoy her quite a bit in both her loud and quiet modes – it’s just that there’s a pretty noticeable split between the mostly up-tempo stuff on the front half of the album and the more abstract, sparse material on the back half. If you know me at all by now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I tend to gravitate toward the more upbeat stuff. But some of the quieter moments are surprising, too, so it’s more of a pacing issue – she simply needs a few more transitional moments between the two extremes to even things out. Despite that, her knack for brilliant arrangements makes itself known throughout this album, often reminding me of many of the favorite female artists I mentioned above, but without ever feeling like she’s just aping any of those artists.
I brought up the word “abstract” earlier, and while it’s an apt descriptor for some of Waggoner’s quieter songs, it also applies quite well to her lyrics. A song can cover so much ground in just a few short minutes, that sometimes you’ll be surprised to look at the lyric sheet and realize how little has actually been said. Themes of nature and an almost parental sort of love abound, hinting at supernatural causes, but stopping far short of preaching on any particular topic. Like many underground songwriters, her intent is more to leave an impression of something beautiful than to spell out the reasons for its existence. And I enjoy that, for the most part, as it makes the album more of a “soundtrack-like” experience, pairing well with your own personal visuals of a leisurely walk through a botanical garden or by a babbling brook. At the same time, if “merely pretty” were all she had to offer, I probably wouldn’t rate her music as highly, because lots of musicians can accomplish that much. It’s the unexpected ways that the beauty comes through, with the choral samples or with unusual instruments or production techniques – sometimes even breaking into the midst of a densely-arranged, hyper-aggressive song – that keep me coming back. Honestly, for the first six tracks of this album, Waggoner’s got a bona fide modern classic on her hands – this could easily be my Album of the Year if only it had kept up the same level of quality. It’s only due to that second half, which is still pretty, sometimes still moving in its melodies and its emotional weight, but which seems a bit aimless in comparison to the brilliance that came before it, that Originator falls just short of five-star glory. Still, it’s a fine introduction to Waggoner’s style, and a formidable account of her capabilities.
This one’s quite aptly named – it’s one of those tracks that seems to continually throw you for a loop, in terms of knowing what to expect from it. There’s an almost carnival-like atmosphere to it, from the watery distortion of the first verse to the thundering drums and guitars in the chorus, and the transitions between Brooke’s smooth and soulful side and her aggressive, temper-tantrum-throwing side occur almost without warning, making this the sort of ride that fans of Tori Amos or Fiona Apple could probably appreciate. A strong piano melody keeps the song mostly anchored as it jumps back and forth between gentle slow dance and psychotic waltz. The driving theme of the song seems to be some sort of abandonment or betrayal, which is summed up most eloquently in the second verse: “Grey is the danger/Keeps you from open arms/Why did you leave your maker/To wander and wander so far?” Whether these musings apply to an unfaithful lover, or to a rebellious human race ignoring the voice of God, is left for the listener to work out on their own. I could still go either way.
Short and to the point, the album’s first single throws pretty much everything Waggoner does well at you within the span of two minutes. “Gonna find ways to make it happen”, she sings expectantly, almost menacingly at first, and then she dives right into a jarring, yet bouncy rock rhythm, deliberately contrasting the soft and loud aspects of her music in an even harsher way than the previous song did. “Less talk, more action” seems to be the motivation here, and suitably, there aren’t that many lyrics here, or even a chorus per se – some incredibly cool runs on the piano substitute for a conventional vocal hook, and when the choirs, drums, and a horn section are all whirling about in a maelstrom of sound, it’s amazing that the piano melody still stands out as much as it does. As much as I’m tempted to wish that the song were longer, this one serves as a beautiful example of how big production values don’t need to be an indie artist’s enemy. The personality and musicianship come through loud and clear, not suffering in the slightest from the million and one things that seem to be happening all at once.
3. From the Nest
Backing off quite a bit on the aggression, this might be the only “happy medium” track on Originator that is neither an aggressive upbeat number nor a sparse ballad. The album could use more like it, in my opinion, because this one’s downright beautiful. The piano playing here is elegant, yet casual, like she’s taking a leisurely walk through the woods wearing a summer dress. Waggoner’s poetry here is part wit and part beauty – I haven’t quite unraveled all of her analogies yet, but the chorus seems to imply that we’re like baby birds in some way, possibly getting away with a pun that would usually be groan-inducing if it weren’t so cutely delivered: “Falling from the nest, we take our leave.” The choir looms in the background, giving it a sort of sun-kissed ambiance, and there’s a harp following Waggoner’s intricate piano melody that reminds me of the sort of thing Joanna Newsom might come up with, if only her songs weren’t so long-winded and convoluted. It’s as if Brooke knows she’s got the crowd swooning here – there’s a total “showtune moment” that I love, where you think the song’s trailing off, only for the drums to kick in and take us through one final chorus in grand style.
4. Ink Slinger
The intro to this song smacks us upside the head with jarring piano chords that punctuate Waggoner’s quick, tongue-twisting lyrics – this one feels like it fully realizes the potential that “Rumble” hinted at, which is not to diminish the compact power of “Rumble”, but more to say that this one feels more fleshed out, more like a complete song in the lyrics department. As an almost danceable drum beat kicks in, she delights in the joy of throwing words around, almost daring the nay-sayers to try and take her weapon of choice away from her. Most of these lyrics are nigh impenetrable, so I can only really take a stab, but that old adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” seems to have been part of the inspiration here. Either way, I love the inherent swagger in the refrain: “Take away now/Go on and make my day now.” In addition to being the most addictively catchy thing on the album, this one’s got an incredibly fun bridge section going for it, with a wacky melody that I can only describe as an attempt to approximate Gypsy music using an Oriental scale. I’m sure that’s a technically inaccurate description, but it’s just so startling and otherworldly and fun that my struggle to figure out where the hell it came from is part of what makes me love the song so much.
We get our first glimpse at Waggoner’s more minimalistic tendencies here, on this slower piece which has a slight jazz overtone to it, due to the “smoky” spin she puts on the vocal melody. I’m sure I’m not describing that right, either. There’s a slow, sort of loose, yet determined pace to the song – at its core, it seems to be about facing something terrifying but never losing your determination to try. Lyrics honestly take a back seat here to the grandeur of the piano melody and the humble rhythm section supporting it. I could see this working as an Over the Rhine song, with a slight detour along the way to pick up some of the “chamber pop” goodness demonstrated by Vienna Teng on Dreaming Through the Noise. An artist must be doing something right if I’m comparing her work to one of my all-time favorite albums.
Another strong pop song is up next – Brooke is an absolute genius when it comes to creating piano riffs for these sorts of songs that aren’t just mindless, stock chords. She really wrings the emotion out of the individual notes in a way that isn’t always easy to accomplish in a faster-paced, full-band sort of environment. Usually painists, and keyboardists in general, get buried in these more radio0-friendly sorts of arrangement, but she makes sure we always understand who’s in charge. This song bursts forth with confidence, and yet at the same time, draws back with humility, as Brooke ponders the wealth of things she has to say as an artist, and also her own tendency to forget that she’s mortal and fallible, and only has a finite amount of time and space to communicate all of it. That notion gives the song a bit of frantic nature, which is perfectly matched by the “busy-body” pace of her piano solo in the bridge, where she’s nervously fiddling around in the bridge. Since this is the last up-tempo song on the album, she wisely creates a bridge between this and the slower back half of Originator by giving the choir the spotlight for the outro, as they slowly reprise the chorus in all of its graceful yet fatalistic glory.
I’m not sure what’s up with Ye Olde Faerie spelling here. I guess the album art and often the choice of instrumentation all hint at a Medieval sort of aesthetic, in that mystical sort of way that we modern folk like to approximate it, at least. There’s an intentional stillness to this one, and the production values are slightly muted, like an old jazz recording. Stylistically, it’s more straightforward than the curveballs all the other songs have thrown us thus far – mostly a simple duet between the piano and acoustic guitar as Brooke sings of a quiet place in the forest, alongside a stream, a precious moment captured in time and held close to her heart. I enjoy the overall ambiance here – especially the outro, where a few horns join in and these small, starry notes from the piano seem to echo off into an endless void. It’s much like some of the quiet interludes on Sufjan Stevens‘ Michigan album. However, the song never quite seems to develop into the musical masterpiece it should be, trailing off in such a way that feels like it’s an incomplete thought. It’s a good idea in need of a little further development.
The gentle and the whimsical meet up here as Brooke greets the first rays of a new morning, her voice taking on a girlish tint that makes the song a dead ringer for an Eisley ballad at first. It remains distinctive due to its unhurried, fluid pace – it’s one of those songs where the rhythm can speed up or slow down to accommodate the emotion of the words, since there’s no percussion or anything keeping a rigid beat. The “whimsical aspects” come in as Brooke acknowledges tension between the regeneration of sleep and the constant wear and tear of daily life – she’s aging and everything will wind down and stop eventually, but she still loves the life she’s been given and wants to make the best of her limited time. A cavalcade of horns and woodwinds comes pouring in for a really beautiful interlude here, bringing a heavy dose of the unexpected into an otherwise quiet song. Though this one’s brief, almost melting into the tracks on either side of it, it’s that distinctive bit of instrumentation that makes it stand out from its surroundings.
This one’s a sad but pretty little instrumental piece, and it has an “impromptu” sort of quality to it, as if the record producer had caught Brooke slowly and thoughtfully improvising it in her living room as she basked in the stillness of a quiet Sunday morning. There are no repeating motifs or instrumental flourishes or really even much of a structure here – just a pretty wandering melody that goes where it pleases for a minute and a half. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have minded having a longer interlude here, but there’s something to be said for capturing an unplanned moment of beauty in a single take and not messing around with it after the fact.
10. Mixin’ with the Birdies
Here’s where the pacing of the album really gets botched. Having two short interludes in a row on an album not otherwise known for bridging its songs with little instrumental odds and ends makes it seem like they were coming up short on ideas and just trying to pad the album’s track length. The basic idea behind this one is admittedly kind of cute – a short, repeating piano melody is paired with old-timey male vocals, whistling, and the chirping of birds, as if trying to recreate the soundtrack to a very old children’s cartoon. (Its positioning as the lead-in to the album’s finale also reminds me of how Elbow reprised “The Birds” near the end of Build a Rocket Boys! – though that was much classier.) It’s intentionally off-key and slightly off-rhythm, which means I’m glad that the track doesn’t overstay its welcome, because honestly, even a minute of this can get mildly irritating.
11. To Love
After that little “WTF” moment, the track switches and Brooke cascades from a free-from, tragic sort of melody into a very slow, melancholy ballad. At five minutes, this is the album’s slowest and longest song… and neither of those are necessarily bad things. It’s just that the large swath of ballads leading up to it can make it seem like a tedious way to go out, whereas more variation in mood and tempo towards the end might have set us up better for a stark finale. I’ll try not to hold that against an emotionally compelling duet, which brings in the cool, understated vocals of fellow singer/songwriter Sanders Bohlke, and the two voices intertwine over an extremely understated piano melody. The mood of the song is pregnant with anticipation (my heart flutters a little when they sing in unison: “And I’ve waited so long for you”), yet they never go for any obvious climactic moments, opting for a contemplative ending about what it means to truly give of yourself to love another, culminating in this quiet piece of advice: “Be wise, you fool”. The song’s abstract nature reminds me of “My Juvenile”, the closing track on Bjork’s Volta, but thankfully this one has just enough of a recognizable melody in each verse that you don’t spend the whole thing feeling completely adrift. It’s not a finale that completely blows me away, but it’s a strong reminder of an artist not wanting to be piegonholed, and it’s commendable that she can strip away all of the other elements that usually make her music so striking and still have an intriguing song when all is said and done.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
From the Nest $2
Ink Slinger $2
Mixin’ with the Birdies $0
To Love $1
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Originally published on Epinions.com.