Amy Aileen Wood 2024
Photo: Colorfield Records

Amy Aileen Wood Emits a Warm, Percussive Vibe on ‘The Heartening’

The experimental nature always hovers above Amy Aileen Wood’s The Heartening, but there’s warmth and a sense of welcome that never seems cold or distant.

The Heartening
Amy Aileen Wood
Colorfield Records
3 May 2024

When you hear of a drummer making a solo record, it’s hard to predict the results. Most likely, the drums will be out in front. But will it be a self-indulgent exercise in odd time signatures? A tuneless experiment that wears out its welcome? No offense to drummers – I’m one myself – but do the limits of a drum kit hamper the overall effect of such an album?

If you’re Amy Aileen Wood, the answer to that question is definitely no, mainly because The Heartening is a full-band effort that, while certainly drawing focus to the percussive aspect of the music, is tuneful and wonderfully atmospheric. Wood has an impressive resume – she’s worked with the likes of Iggy Pop, St. Vincent, and Jenny Lewis, among others – but her work with Fiona Apple has likely garnered her the most kudos and attention. Wood first joined Apple’s touring band in 2012 and played on, as well as co-produced, Apple’s critically revered 2020 album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

You could almost look at The Heartening as a Wood-helmed extension of Apple’s album. The overall vibe of Fetch the Bolt Cutters is one where Wood’s percussion, in all its rattling, rabble-rousing glory, is a defining sonic characteristic of the album. What’s more, several of the participants on Apple’s album make appearances on The Heartening. Upright bassist Sebastian Steinberg plays on a handful of tracks, as does multi-instrumentalist John Would and Apple herself (there are no lyrics on The Heartening, but Apple hums, yelps, laughs, and performs all manner of vocalizing on three tracks).

Apple’s vocals make up a significant part of the sound on “Rolling Stop”, the opening song, collaborating perfectly with Wood’s booming syncopations, as Nicole McCabe’s saxophone adds the perfect jazz-inflected melodic touches. The album’s eclectic nature is evident as early as the next track, “Hiccups”, which infuses sparse funk beats with alien blasts before holding back with more subdued sections incorporating piano and Gamelan strips against a soft percussive pulse.

While the mood on The Heartening tends to be one of playful, laid-back tunefulness, there are times when Wood dials things down to a slower, more deliberate pace, as on “The Valley”, a song that sounds uncannily like a reflective section of a film score. By comparison, dark, weird tracks like “Midnight Zone” and “My Shadow” are more experimental in nature and seem to take cues from the clanky percussion of Tom Waits, as well as the sample-heavy weirdness of Steinberg’s former band, Soul Coughing.   

The exotic implementation of mallet percussion brings to mind Mobile, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s gorgeous 2006 solo album, particularly on the knotty funk beats of “The Learning Problem”. But more often than expected, tracks like the layered soul of “Slow Light” have a soothing calm. The experimental nature always hovers above The Heartening, but there’s a warmth and a sense of welcome that never seems cold or distant.

When she was approached by Pete Min of Colorfield Records about the idea of this solo album, Wood explained in the press notes: “My motivation was entirely fear-based. I think my first question for Pete was, ‘Are you sure?’ But it’s always good to get out of your comfort zone. Ultimately, it was equal parts uncomfortable and rewarding.” The Heartening may be out of Wood’s comfort zone, but the results certainly sound like someone who is both eclectic and confident in her art.

RATING 7 / 10