Laura Wolf’s Shelf Life is a lot like her previous EP in that it was created in an environment that required a steep learning curve. In 2019, after being bedridden by emergency surgery and forced to cancel a tour, the Brooklyn-based producer, cellist, and singer taught herself Ableton music software and began recording music in her parents’ Connecticut basement and her Providence apartment. The result is a 2021 release (Artifacts) and the aforementioned new EP that showcase her newfound penchant for samples, glitchy sound design, and something of a redefinition of “bedroom pop”.
I had the pleasure of seeing Wolf perform twice last year, both times in Providence, and her shows were a dazzling, endlessly creative one-person display of on-the-fly sampling, loops, cello, and vocals, all complemented with gorgeous, soaring melodic turns. This kind of live performance dovetails nicely with her recorded works, which combine studio weirdness with genuinely sophisticated songwriting and touches of classical sonic maneuvers.
Shelf Life‘s opening track, “Alluvial Fan”, begins with spacey keyboards and samples while Wolf repeats, “I’m just sitting past my shelf life / Who’s left to say otherwise / I got stuck along my lifeline / Who’s left to say otherwise?” before a gentle thumping beat keeps the song moving along. Wolf’s vocals are delicate, almost whisper-like. The song has a danceable, pop sensibility infused with alien-like weirdness. The single “Calligraphy and Calculations” continues along the same sonic route, hooks falling gently from the sky, with a highly percussive atmosphere part of the generous samples.
There’s a reflective sweetness to “Homebody”, with the heavy reliance on treated piano sounds adding to the general mood of self-awareness and vulnerability: “Don’t mind me, my mind was playing card tricks for myself (like always) / You held me wrapped up in blankets potted for the shelf (like always).” As Wolf explains in the press notes, the song began as a two-chord voice memo sent to her by her friend Tyler Bussey “playing ‘Bad Gibberish’ on the piano used by Sufjan Stevens on Carrie & Lowell. I chopped up, warped, and re-pitched the piano into a chord progression that became the framework of the song.” If there’s any doubt that Wolf learned a lot while holed up in her parents’ attic, “Homebody” is a lush, intricate example that should dismiss any speculation. This is sublime, deeply moving experimentation.
With “Metal on the Vine”, Wolf combines lots of synthesized sonic manipulation with the aching sounds of the cello as her primary, pre-Ableton instrument makes its first significant appearance. This seamless combination of synths and traditional strings is something at which Wolf excels; it’s not to say that these intersections are not jarring, but they produce unique and satisfying results. Likewise, the pulsating, low-key synthpop meditation “Paper and Plastic” and the slightly more upbeat “Sadie” deftly channel the 1980s synthpop of artists like Thomas Dolby and Depeche Mode.
“Birch Tree” closes Shelf Life – far too soon, truth be told – with a gentle, sparse arrangement, as a sustained keyboard landscape carries Wolf’s emotionally resonant vocals to the EP’s conclusion. “Wake up, and you’ll be someone” is the song’s final line. Over a little less than 30 minutes, Laura Wolf takes us on an authentic sonic adventure, marrying glitchy samples with emotional execution. Shelf Life makes you want to hear more from this unique, gifted voice.