Denton, Texas native Sarah Jaffe creates atmospheres more than songs. Some are sparse declarations of delicate emotions, such as the gentle “Paul”. Others are more layered treatments of piano, drums, and electronic instruments, such as the moody “The Way a Sound Leaves a Room”. And some are downright busy with musical gingerbreading, such as the silly “Glorified High”. And in every case, Jaffe uses her voice to center the song’s sonics and transport the listener to another self-contained world.
The songs are like rooms in a house, walled off from each other but essentially part of the whole structure. One can hear the echo of footsteps as she goes down the hall to the next place in the loping rhythms. Jaffe never stands still. Her voice wavers and reaches for that extra second beyond breath. As she sings on the title track, the body always wins. She strains for the ephemeral just beyond her grasp. Yet the body only wins in the way Jaffe delivers her vocals.
The greatest pleasures come from hearing the gaps between the notes, such as one the acoustic guitar based “Foggy Fields”. Her discipline expresses simplicity rather than repression. Her concentration allows her to seem entirely alone, as if no one is listening. But she records for an audience, not just herself, and so the rhetorical trick turns one into two. She compels one to be part of her universe.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the aptly named instrumental “Limerence”. The term refers to the obsessive romantic emotion of love that demands the object of affection reciprocate with equal passion. The desire is more sexual than platonic. Jaffe plays the piano in a languid fashion that slowly builds from interior emotions but never really climaxes. Her lovers may hold hands and kiss, but they are chaste until the song just ends.
The fact that Jaffe seems to be experimenting with musical possibilities is both the strength and weakness of the disc. It keeps the listener from getting bored. However, it also keeps Jaffe from probing very deep into any particular territory. So when she does begin to wail on cuts such as “Sucker for Your Marketing”, you do not really believe she is overwhelmed. She seems to be playing at the role more than inhabiting the one she describes. Other songs have similar problems. “Hooray for Love” seems neither sarcastic nor the opposite. It just seems weird and unfinished.
The odd musical times and different combination of instruments from track to track contribute to the impression. The individual compositions come off as tone poems. When they work, one feels reflective and meditative after the experience of listening. When they do not, one just feels confused. As a whole, Jaffe seems more perplexed than clear about what she’s doing. That’s cool. Good things can come from taking risks and not mapping out where one is headed. But she does hit some dead ends as well as new paths. This suggests she needs to take less time worrying how beautiful the sound is—the songs are self-consciously pretty—and more in just letting things blossom on their own. Not every song can be happy, bring psychic resolution, or even describe a real feeling, place, or thing. Sometimes songs just have to be songs. Jaffe’s atmospherics can get in the way or provide their own reasons for existence. It depends on the individual track.
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// Notes from the Road
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