Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: 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.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith


Label: Western Vinyl
US Release Date: 2016-04-01
UK Release Date: 2016-04-01

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.