Miriam Piilonen is a composer, music theory instructor, singer-songwriter, punk saxophonist, and poet. If you are wondering exactly which musical approach best represents her personality, you may be frustrated or intrigued to learn that she gleefully dodges any defining characteristics on her latest release, Sharp Diamond. How the album starts, where it goes, and how it ends all come from very different places, even on a seven-track, 24-minute record. The good news is that Piilonen does not carelessly or obnoxiously toss her musical identity all over the map in a vain attempt to appear clever. The better news is that taken at face value, all seven compositions on Sharp Diamond are as delightful as they are unique.
Some context of her past endeavors may help you sort through the music. Piilonen’s first solo release, tv poems II, is a musical accompaniment to a book of drawings by artist Heath Valentine. The eight short pieces featured a twisted array of computerized sounds that straddled major with minor, creating many avenues of sound without zeroing in on a single mood. Next came FAEGRANCE, a brief EP of electronic sounds meant to emulate puffs of perfume hitting the air and dissipating.
Upon relocating from Chicago to the East Coast, Piilonen had to leave the Windy City punk band Pledge Drive after completing their LP Second Impressions, for whom she played saxophone. She then set out to compose and record “Odd Temporalities”, a seven-minute composition she calls “a rather punishing piece for robot marching band”, to which one can only say she’s not wrong.
Six months after releasing a collection of poetry called Crowd Displeasers, Piilonen has turned her attention to a fully realized solo release. Sharp Diamond has strange instrumentals but also a few “songs” that don’t sound like they should be packaged together yet hang on one another in perfect balance. “Fern Circle” makes for a hushed star juggling electronic reed sounds with beatless psychedelic chords as Piilonen sighs the refrain, “Even my voice had a strawberry scent to it.” The title track, which takes up about 30% of the record’s runtime, is a showcase of Piilonen’s arrangement abilities as she adapts a piece originally written for flute, harp, vibraphone, and auxiliary percussion into an in-concert electronic performance.
Like tv poems II, FAEGRANCE, and “Odd Temporalities”, the harmony, tempo, and structure are all out to challenge you. “Diva Like U” is the first track on Sharp Diamond to feature the programming talents of DJ Ben Court, who helps Piilonen tap into her inner synthpop diva persona. Cobbled together from handclaps, dance beats, and the periodic moan, the track answers the unasked question, “What if Madonna went minimal?” “Ooh baby, you are a rare butterfly,” Piiilonen speaks as other overdubs of her voice fly to and fro.
“Fire Truck” keeps the electronic dance music theme going but does so in a very odd way. As the artificial siren sounds away in the background, a fast, shuffling beat keeps time to a highly fractured synth melody. Then comes the rainy day trip-hop ballad “Deeper Than I’ve”, a ponderous song that throws out all of the glitz and glitch of the previous two tracks in favor of one chord struck on the keyboard over and over as the naked beat fades out then in. “Softer than I’ve ever known / Whispering on the telephone / I’ve been getting older / And so I know,” Piilonen sings in what she describes as “the process of connecting, or failing to connect, with others.”
At barely over a minute long, “Paisley Smoke” continues this atmosphere only with some more involved keyboards of the slowly arpeggiated nature, courtesy of Brennan Bocks. It’s so brief it feels more like an introduction to the final song than its own entity, but it is highly effective as a pastoral bridge.
Lastly comes “(I Like Seeing) Tough Guys Cry”, a glittering pop gem (ahem) built from four simple chords and a recurring synthesizer note from Court’s arrangement. It starts almost fully realized and becomes more intricate: “Come a little bit closer to me, friend / Together, we can swim to the deep end.” As the song’s narrator admits that she likes watching the macho weep, the listener must conclude if she gets satisfaction from the humiliation or appreciates masculine tenderness. Piilonen is in no hurry to clarify this, as she writes that this song is “a tongue-in-cheek joke about the pleasure of seeing a tough guy cry, which becomes a revelation about being the tough guy oneself”. Play “(I Like Seeing) Tough Guys Cry” twice for yourself, and it’s in your head forever.
Though this is Miriam Piilonen’s first release to demonstrate her abilities as a singer-songwriter, there is a great deal more to be found within Sharp Diamond, a recording as multifaceted as a fine jewel. How she covered so much ground in such a short period while not coming off like a know-it-all is more than just admirable; it makes you want to hear more from her.