Laurel Sprengelmeyer, the woman behind Little Scream, titled her debut album after a 1977 space expedition by the Voyager Space shuttle. That trip delivered a time capsule of music, sound, and language meant to represent Earth to other life forms in the future. The Golden Record takes a similarly lofty aim, with a sound that stretches out to reach the astral plane, but manages a more convincing form of communication.
Like many other singer-songwriters with breathy vocals, Sprengelmeyer deals in layers of echo. There’s plenty of reverb to go around, but her strength comes in not relying too heavily on it to carry the sonic weight. The space she crafts here comes less from how her voice resonates and more from the heady instrumentation. “Cannons” immediately separates Sprengelmeyer from her fellow singer-songwriters. The skipping drums, jangling guitars, and dreamy keys maintain the fragile expanse of her sound, but add an unpredictable shift. The payoff comes when we hit the military-trudge of the refrain. “The people we see are skeletons we all know by name,” she breaths out, and all of a sudden the bittersweet glide of the record—going all the way back to opener “The Lamb”—turns on a dime into a sinister rumble.
The best parts of The Golden Record push against the traditional singer-songwriter archetypes. Even as most songs are built on guitar and voice, Sprengelmeyer is an adroit composer with a wide swath of skills. Notice how layers of atmosphere build, how vocals double and redouble, on “Your Radio”, or hear the striking size of the desert-like negative space around the crashing drums and celestial vocals of “Boatman”. Even the brighter “Red Hunting Jacket”, a late-album respite from moodier textures, plays a rickety distorted guitar against a playful piano riff until the song explodes, unpredictably, into a gin-joint stomper. The musician who has built everything so carefully to here, haunted us like some benevolent spirit, has now burst to sweat-soaked life.
In these moments, Little Scream feels for all the world like a full-fledged band. Sprengelmeyer is confident enough, though, to step out and as a laid-bare solo artist in other places on the record. “Black Cloud” is perhaps the most stunning example, with a gentle violin running over blurry guitar. It’s an understated song, but her vocals are downright stunning. Her voice rises and falls with an urgency early on, though in the middle of the song it’s like she changes personalities. Her voice bottoms out into a deep whisper, and the whole tone of the song changes from pastoral shimmer to late-night stillness. “The Heron and the Fox” pulls off a similar less-is-more success. Perhaps the most straightforward folk song on the record, it also contains the most beautiful melody, and the guitar is so hushed you’ll almost miss the Cohen-esque whip of her picking.
Sprengelmeyer’s layering is so distinct, so full-bodied, that sometimes her more direct approaches feel slight. “The Lamb” plays as an incantation to the record, but its wandering quiet sounds like a lot of gauzy acts out there, and though the guitars on “Guyegaros” crunch and acoustics twang, the desert blues it’s attempting feels too unmoored, particularly because “Boatman” follows it and nails the same expansive dust. These moments, though, aren’t mistakes. Instead, they’re more humble lights made just a little dimmer by the brightness of the highlights around them. The Golden Record is a hushed but exciting new album, one that delivers some brilliant moments but, perhaps more importantly, promises a bright future for Little Scream. For now, she’s made an impressive first contact.