A Breathtaking Invisible Sculpture
After studying sculpture at Yale University, Larkin Grimm was eventually noticed not for her art but rather for the unique quality of her singing voice. While this path towards a career in music may be a bit atypical, it surely is no more atypical than Grimm’s actual musical output. On her website, she states that “music is invisible sculpture;” this philosophy certainly makes sense once one has listened to Grimm’s work. She crafts immaculate soundscapes, using her powerful voice and an eclectic assortment of accompanying instruments to capture an aesthetic that is both harrowing and strikingly beautiful. Now, on her new album, Chasing the Illusion, she looks to explore new sonic territories and delve into weighty lyrical themes, all while continuing to sculpt her raw and alluring sound.
On the LP’s first track, “Ah Love is Oceanic Pleasure,” Grimm firmly establishes her eclectic compositional style. The singer’s music has often been categorized as “freak folk,” and one can certainly understand this designation after listening to the album opener. While the track never strays too far into dissonant, avant-garde territory, it embraces a uniquely strange style. Its percussion-less soundscape is colored with psychedelic, ‘60s-esque sitars, low growling drones and delicate harp glissandos. Meanwhile, Grimm’s vocals offer entrancing melodic phrases, but certainly nothing in the way of “catchy,” reminding us that she operates very much outside of the popular music framework.
The following track, “Beautifully Alone,” treats listeners with a slightly more palatable offering. Its cheerful tone is hard to resist, almost entering into pop territory. Meanwhile, the song showcases an intricately woven groove, with tom-heavy drums, tasteful harp arpeggios, funky bass, smooth woodwinds and even a sax solo. Grimm’s voice is — as always — spellbinding, as she melds invigorating lead melodies with gorgeous harmonies. She sings, “When I’m alone with you / I realize our love isn’t real,” which seems to juxtapose the happy mood established by the instrumentals. However, as stated in the song’s title, Grimm is content to be “Beautifully Alone.” There is some nice thematic contrast here, adding a layer of tension that would not exist in one’s standard pop fare.
“Fear Transforms into Love (Journey in Turiya…)” takes the album to new sonic heights, capturing an aesthetic that stands somewhere in between the weirdness of the opening track and the pop accessibility of “Beautifully Alone.” Its endlessly repetitive harmonic structures drone on; yet diverse, ever-evolving instrumental textures ensure that the song never feels drawn-out — even at its sprawling, six-minute runtime. Spine-tingling saxophones are joined by a wide assortment of instruments to color the song’s jazz-inflected atmosphere, while low drones provide a dark quality that prevents the song from ever straying to far into the contemporary jazz realm. With her commanding voice, Grimm demands listeners’ attention whenever she so desires. Yet she is also able to rein herself in when need be, allowing a spotlight to shine on her exceptionally talented bandmates. Unfortunately, on some tracks, such as “I Don’t Believe You,” we do see Grimm’s vocal leads distract a bit from the instrumental section, as they are so loud that they may cause listeners to reach for their volume knobs. While, overall, Grimm’s delivery is exceptional, there are certainly moments where one might wish that her voice had not been elevated so highly in the mix (honestly, it so forceful that one almost feels as if she could easily perform without a microphone).
“I Don’t Believe You” does also offer one of the most powerful performances on the album. Eerie background vocals tickle eardrums, while Grimm touches upon poignant lyrical themes. Last year, the singer accused her former label head and collaborator — legendary Swans guitarist, Michael Gira — of rape. She later released “I Don’t Believe You” as a tribute to all victims of abuse. Grimm painfully proclaims, “I wish that I could die / I wish that you would die too / so I could play outside / I could be free with you,” expressing the incredulous way in which we, as a society, view assault victims. And, as the song slowly progresses, Grimm’s vocals take on an even more wounded tone. Fortunately, elegant instrumental decor prevents “I Don’t Believe You” from ever becoming too overwhelming of a listen. (Throughout the record, harpist Jesse Sparhawk’s performance is particularly standout, his delicate flourishes leaving a firm imprint on Chasing the Illusion’s sound.)
The following three tracks, “On the Floor,” “A Perfect World” and “Keeping You Alive,” offer slightly more abbreviated listens. The former of the three crafts a surprisingly sparse sonic landscape — especially when compared to the rest of Chasing the Illusion — that comprises of simply a lone electric guitar. This allows Grimm’s voice plenty of room to operate. The song lags a bit, but, fortunately, its short runtime ensures that listeners won’t grow bored. “A Perfect World” features a slow, laid-back atmosphere that is a welcome respite from the album’s more aggressive moments of sonic experimentation. Grimm maneuvers quite adeptly at these slower tempos, as she masterfully elongates her vowels, tickling listeners’ eardrums in the process. The next track, “Keeping You Alive,” picks things up a bit with its upbeat percussion and playful bass-pizzicato string interplay.
Finally, the album closes on the eponymous “Chasing an Illusion,” which is perhaps the weirdest song yet, capturing a folksy, country-western vibe, as Grimm dramatically deviates from the standard Western (diatonic) scale, startling listeners with her dissonant, blaring delivery. Brass is eventually added to the mix, resulting in a more full-bodied sonic landscape. However, interesting bits of spoken vocals are peppered in that feel strikingly out-of-place; they may even cause listeners to check to make sure the sound isn’t playing from another source.
Generally speaking, Chasing the Illusion presents a listen that is impressively cohesive. Each track espouses a sound that builds upon that of its precursors but does not imitate it. Furthermore, Grimm carefully orders her tracklist so that the pacing never drags. The album’s slower offerings are nicely contrasted by uptempo numbers, the album’s mournful creations are followed by joyful odes. All in all, Chasing the Illusion is a commendable addition to Larkin Grimm’s growing catalog, capturing a sound that pushes boundaries, whilst never straying into unlistenable territory.