Upon coming to terms with the exceptional caliber this album bears, one must be prepared for the exploration of piercing effects that may otherwise be considered a test of endurance. Altissimo reeds and metallic scrapes embody what initially appears to resemble a barrier of the heaviest duty; an obstacle that deflates the feathery vocals and steady tambourine shakes that undulate softly below the album’s jarring, stannic surfaces. In alternate contexts these high pitched waves are often used to expand atmospheric ugliness or disrepair; in the cascades of a blistering noise piece or saturated guitar feedback, which can render them objectionable. However, when they come embedded within Ashley Paul’s cautious, meager and withdrawn song writing, they echo a warning, a sonic aposematism. One of the most appealing aspects of Line the Clouds is that it wholeheartedly challenges the instinctive reactions such scraping and screeching often bring about – it incorporates these sounds into the delicate framework of a record soaring with freakish grandeur, where such tones reflect an aesthetic preference brought about by introverted qualities. As as a consequence, that allows for a redefinition of what beauty might constitute in a broader setting; from the faint and wavering scrape of Wide Expanse, to the grinding drench of Black and Blue and the acoustic jamboree of Feb 21., there is enough tonal discord on here to create startling offense from the outset, but with patience and examination, therein lies a trove of resplendent reward.
Ashley Paul is a multi-instrumentalist and experimental composer based in Brooklyn, New York. Line the Clouds is her third solo effort for Eli Keszler’s R.E.L records and it follows last year’s sensational Slow Boat, which was released on Brookyln’s own Orange Milk. Paul’s latest release sees her teaming up with both Eli Keszler and long time collaborator Anthony Coleman in creating a suite of material that touches on free improv, unorthodox composition and avant garde jazz. This makes for a tricky combination of genres to be working across, and Paul operates on the fringes of each one, tapping into structures that work for her and conforming them to misshapen takes, where vocals are used as a secondary means in pursuing the emotions she wishes to convey. Though she sings eloquently of tear drops, dreams and determination, her instruments make for the most elaborate unveiling of emotive intent. This is brought to the fore most radically through pitch height, which one learns to overcome, step by step, as intrusive resonance washes between the underlying music like a crystalline tide covering a shore of glistening pebbles.
Black and Blue presents the most fascinating examples of this. The song’s opening half is poured across singular tone feedback, which acts as a launch pad for three high notes that are played on a clarinet somewhere between tender guitar plucking and uneven vibration. Strings are deployed so delicately that the bow hair can be physically felt as it rushes back and forth – the sensation is intoxicating. One’s initial reaction is to move away from a sound that initially appears so aggressive, but upon confrontation it proves genuinely pleasant, almost addictive – the way that the feedback dies down and delicate strains become layered is simply dazzling; where long strokes turn into short, sharp bursts of energy and a static exhalation can be heard in the distance. The charm lies in the detail, and such instances can be found all over Line the Clouds. On Wolf Laurel, a favorite for this writer, similar tactics are deployed in unwrapping fermata sequences as though the notes could stretch on forever, when the they do break apart over fumbled guitar strings, several seconds of quiet reflection are permitted before the process repeats itself. It’s as though one has time to examine those high pitched tones up close and personal, magnifying glass in hand – there is not need to rush, no need to move away.
When these otherwise uncomfortable sounds come into contact with Paul’s voice, the shrillest of tones somehow complement the accompanying instrumentation. Assorted incognito scrapes open Wrap Me Up, before the vocals are revealed, spread across of a number of layers; two are high in pitch while the third embodies a gruff underlay – “way out west, you’ll find me / wrap me up” she sings softly before Keszler’s unmistakable percussion ensues. The singing is also remarkably off kilter, that if one were to search for contemporary comparison, Laurel Halo might unwittingly fit the bill – the way that Halo’s forceful and dented pitch achieves an uneasy, human contrast to her warm electronic scores is similar to how Paul pushes her lyrics gently past acoustic compositions. The major difference here is that there is no immediate contrast to the human aspects of her voice, there are no electronics, and that creates an entirely fresh musical mood that diverges substantially from Halo’s. Paul demonstrates this beautifully on Watch Them Pass, a track that depicts her fragile lyrics peaking over the top of some wonderful guitar strings and gentle sax – the track is almost acoustic ambient and, because of its lack of tinnital qualities, makes for the perfect opportunity to focus on the outstanding allure of Paul’s vocal stylings, which are fragile, but carry with them a great deal of weight, even at a tender whisper.
The feel of the album encompasses an overwhelming voyage, where intricately detailed treasures have been deposited in a space that pulls on an incredible range of influences. Line the Clouds is its very own boutique gallery packed with graceful and bewitching artifacts, complete with a most exclusive defense mechanism; the shrill effects some will no doubt find off putting. But like the piercing violins of Takemitsu’s The Woman in the Dunes, or the blistering screech of Penderecki’s Threnody, those explorations into the wild embody mesmerizing detail and wonder. In this case, such instances are presented in a careful arrangement of instruments, from bells and crotales to clarinet and saxophone, which are cast in an acoustic interplay of abstract plumbing, where muddled strings complement anxious vocals. At a time when software ruthlessly directs those at the forefront of production, a shimmering challenger lurks in the bustling depths; for despite all the warning signs, Line the Clouds sounds so incredibly human, without the slightest inclination of wanting to be anything else.
Ashley Paul, Line the Clouds (rel, 2013) | Buy on Amazon US (out on March 26, 2103)
Daniel is a documentary filmmaker and writer currently residing in London. Follow him on Twitter: @danielemmerson.