Chicago singer-songwriter strips the electronics from her folk-pop to emphasize instrumental intricacy and nature-fixated lyrics. This new clarity highlights both strengths and weaknesses.
With a lyrical sensibility grounded in nature imagery, an emphasis on gentle acoustic instrumentation, and Jenny Gillespie's creamy delivery, Belita might make an initial impression as simply well-played coffeehouse fare. It takes a few listens to notice the formal elasticity in Gillespie's songs and the bee stings and bites in those woodland and water metaphors. Although these riskier elements are never quite enough to wash out the scent of espresso, Belita is nonetheless more Joni than Jewel.
Following her 2010 release, Kindred, on which Gillespie outfitted her pop-folk with electronic textures, the Chicago songwriter decided to develop her fingerpicking style and streamline her sound. On Belita, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Jim White, and guitarist Marc Ribot provide outstanding backing for Gillespie's vocals, guitars and keys, and she duets on three songs with fellow cult folkie Sam Amidon. Fittingly, the clean production favors intricacy and intimacy over atmosphere. The declarations of love in "Sunshine Blood" ("I'll be the one to hold your smallest movements giant in the mind") are matched when the repeated piano motif in straight time inflates to a languorous 6/8, and Gillespie and Ribot go for ecstatic high notes on vocal and guitar. Gillespie's picking and Amidon's scraping violin embody the geographical dislocation after the end of a long relationship on "Cheating Gong".
Unfortunately, the sonic clarity also highlights the flaws. The dangerous and sensual woodland imagery on "Creature of Our Make" seems equal parts Lars Von Trier's Antichrist and Robert Plant ("Let me simply feel your presence / And I'll drip honey by-and-by"), but it suffers substantially from a speak-sing delivery from Amidon that never meshes with Gillespie's more traditional style. On a more fundamental level, Gillespie loses the distinctive musical and thematic vibe with "Mariposa", a pretty, but vapid, children-are-the-future ballad ("Minerva's brought the children / To plant seeds along the parkway / Their hands deep in the soil / Which ones will see their flowers grow?").
The EP format is an ideal context for working out the kinks of a new style, which is what Gillespie seems to be doing here. With some more polish, the best attributes of Belita could lead to an even more daring and accomplished full-length follow-up.