Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s debut Euclid was one of the prettiest albums of 2015 — a fantasia playground of wispy, synthesized sunbeams. It started bubbly and excited, and then settled us down for a calm, soothing nap. The latter mostly happened on 12 tracks named “Labyrinth”, each differentiated by a Roman numeral (“Labryinth I”, “Labryinth II”, “Labyrinth III”, etc.). If it is a maze to get lost in, and it does feel like it, it is one listeners will be pleased to disappear into.
Three things I never thought about while listening to Euclid: What instrument Smith was playing (a Buchla 100 synthesizer), Euclidean geometry (which Smith has said initially drove the structure behind much of the album) and whether there were vocals (there were).
That last one seems crazy in retrospect. Though only present on the first six tracks, the, non-”Labryinth” tracks, the vocals are clearly present when you’re listening for them. But they are barely noticeable when you’re not — they appear as blips within a greater soundscape, as pieces of sound like everything else. At most: robotic voices echoing the melodies, humming along.
Contrast that with the first song on Ears, “First Flight”. After a reverie that makes me feel like Disney’s Electrical Parade is starting up, it becomes something more like a song, in the sense that it sounds like she’s singing lyrics more straightforwardly than on Euclid. At the same time, with the way her voice is layered upon her voice, it’s impossible to figure out what she’s singing. You can guess, or feel your way towards words — something like “tell me there’s room in my soul”, but not. And that’s a common thing on Ears: you can think or feel your way into narratives and “songs” that deliver messages, but in a way you’re tricking yourself into thinking there’s something solid here that you’re fully grasping and comprehending.
That sense of understanding but not understanding carries into the way the music gets more complicated than on Euclid, for better or for worse. For worse only because Smith is complicating the sometimes simple-seeming pleasures of her music, the sheer sensual side — not getting rid of it, but complicating it. “For better” for obvious reasons, that this is an even deeper labyrinth to explore.
The music feels less homogeneous, perhaps slightly more erratic, than on Euclid, but still with the overall feeling of beauty and future-looking exploration. Actually “erratic” isn’t the right word, it’s more that the music is likelier to change gears unexpectedly. It’s darker overall, and more emotional for it, while still fluttery and light and glossy.
One interesting development that isn’t readily obvious, though you sense it about halfway through, is the presence of woodwinds and horns along with the synthesizers. They’re played by Rob Frye of Bitchin’ Bajas, a group that this year has continued to explore new territory of their own (on the Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties album with Bonnie Prince Billy and the Sailing a Sinking Sea soundtrack with Olivia Wyatt).
Titles on Ears include “Wetlands”, “Existence in the Unfurling”, “Rare Things Grow”, “Envelop” and “When I Try, I’m Full” (the one where we come closest to hearing the titular words) — each seems appropriate and descriptive, in its own way.
The press-bio stories on Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith tell of her childhood on the remote Orcas Island in Washington state, and of her time studying at Berklee College of Music. Both somehow seem relevant to what we’re hearing on Ears, more so than with most musicians’ bios. That the press materials mention Ear being influenced by Moebius and Hiyao Miyazaki also makes sense, not just with the album art but the sense that we’re listening to an imaginative world of its own being drawn before us.
And that might be the key difference between Euclid and Ears. Where the former had a great, compelling sound, the latter feels — especially as it gets on, in the last portion — like we’ve been pulled into a fantasy world. And a fantasy world that’s not just fantasy, but also as scary and beautiful and sad and weird as our own.