by Dan Coffey
“Little Ice Age,” the track that opens Cabinet of Natural Curiosities’ album Searchlight Needles (For Arbors/For Satellites, 2012), is a song that is reminiscent of prayer. In it, Jasmine Dreame Wagner, the “aka” behind this project, pleads, cajoles, and invokes with her voice, which is occasionally hushed, but always filled with the confidence of a seasoned folk singer, as if attempting to call the album into being. For added effect, Wagner wraps her often-multitracked voice in similarly multitracked acoustic guitars that are often as unsettling as they are soothing.
The paradox of Searchlight Needles is, in fact, that it unsettles as it soothes. Wagner’s lyrics work powerfully with and against the music (both in sonics and meaning), and her seemingly endless palette of sounds rise up to provide counterpoint to the guitar-based melodies, and to occasionally override them, bringing the music into the realm of noise, most notably in the inexplicably bizarre and effective final two minutes of the gorgeous love song “For Sparrow.”
Wagner seems especially sensitive to dualities. The song “Sun,” is one of the more straightforward ballads on the album. “Moon,” which comes a little later, is a tense, taut, song where acoustic guitar and quiet electric guitar shredding that sounds like Derek Bailey experimenting with Frippertronics circle around each other. Then there are the back to back songs “Glass,” and “Grass”: the former stretching out over ten minutes, with wind chimes and bass kicking things off before bashing drums and reverb-drenched electric guitars come in along with a spoken word recitation that remains audible but becomes less and less intelligible as the song careens onward. Towards the end, the drums and bass drop out, and we’re left with monstrous and very satisfying guitar feedback and gradually fading vocal loops, to end with more specimens pulled from Wagner’s sonic bag of tricks. If “Little Ice Age,” is the song that calls the album into being, “Glass” is the fullest realization of what Wagner can do with everything that she’s summoned. “Grass,” by contrast, is a short song with a comparatively direct lyric that eschews the gentler acoustic guitar for the louder, noisier electric guitar of “Glass.”
“Fabulist Decay” is an instrumental that puts Wagner unequivocally into musique-concrete territory, and the album closes with a return to the odd folk spiked with noise that began the album. Cabinet of Natural Curiosities continues in a recent tradition of exploring what it means to embrace the tradition of folk and the newness of cutting-edge music. Unabashedly romantic, spiritual, and mystical, and yet cliche-free and balancing avant-garde tendencies without a “weird for weird’s sake” approach, Wagner has created a semi-masterpiece here. Highly recommended for intrepid contemporary folk and/or avant-garde fans with headphones and a penchant for walking around lakes during summer nights. Or just headphones.