Pink, Madonna, Adele, Beyonce, Bjork, Shakira … the pop music catalog is full of female artists who are on a first name basis with the public, and now there is one more artist to add to the list. Formerly calling her project People Eating People, Seattle pianist and vocalist Nouela Johnston has turned in her zombie motif for a simple nametag: Nouela .But the name change isn’t the only modification Johnston has applied to her music: with the elimination of guitars, more central percussion, and tribal flares, Nouela gives fans a new album completely singular from People Eating People’s feisty and beguiling self-titled debut.
While People Eating People offers a mix of impish and playful songs such as “All the Hospitals” and “I Hate All My Friends” along light and quirky songs like “Rain, Rain,” Chants comes in poles apart with something much angrier and deliberate. An introduction to the album’s curdling despair, “Joke” is a sluggish and melancholic light jazz song featuring Johnston’s sultry and telling vocals. What seems simple and painfully austere on the first listen becomes bitterly emotional by the third or fourth. But just as you adapt to the icy and remote musicscape of “Joke,” you are jerked into the rigid urgency of “Buckle Down” with no warning at all. In fact the entire album seems to be lacking in transitions. The haunting piano and percussion riffs in “Buckle Down” abruptly transform to “Fight”’s choppy, energetic and irresistible beat. These instant switches make Chants a thrilling and fantastic musical funhouse.
Though so many songs participate in this wonderful and strange fantasy, this album is not without its misfortunes. Often compared to a wide spectrum of artists including Regina Spektor, Tori Amos, and Norah Jones, Johnston proves that she is not a facsimile of every other girl with a piano … that is until the fourth song on this album. The opening riff sounds like a slightly dismal rip off of the frothy beginning to Regina Spektor’s “Us”. What’s missing is Spektor’s supreme kitsch and quirkiness, which is perhaps why it is so disappointing. By this point in the album, we know that Johnston is more than capable of creating her own brand of eccentricity.
But altogether the misfortunes are few. Chants shows Johnston’s growth as a musician. Her understanding of jazz is evident in this album where it was not so clear in People Eating People. Songs such as “Secrets,” “Suckers”, and “Regrets” are like smooth tides of jazz, resounding as honest and subtle tributes to musicians such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Nina Simone.
Chants establishes a new sound for Nouela Johnston, one that is both gripping and affecting. Each of these one word-titled songs, though distinctive, mesh beautifully together to create an emotional and dream-like album. In comparison to Johnston’s debut People Eating People, her latest release reflects her careful consideration of both unity and direction when it came to crafting her music. As long as Johnston continues to provide us with more lonely, yet rousing, sinuous jazz songs, we will be “suckers for her sorrow.”