By Dan Coffey
Ashley Paul’s latest release, before her upcoming full-length album on Important Records, is a cassette containing six songs. The Brooklyn-based new face on the avant-garde improv/compositional circuit has become quite prolific. Here she uses the cassette medium to create what seems like a suite in two parts, the songs tied together by explorations of loss and determination to find what has been lost. To that end, the music, all performed by Paul save for guest appearances by Eli Keszler on percussion on the title song and Greg Kelley on trumpet on another cut.
Paul plays quite a bit of guitar on these songs – deceptively simple combinations of three or four notes repeated at different tempos to anchor the chaos that she brings into the mix. Much of the guitar sounds muddled and distant, so that when another few crisp, clear notes are played on electric guitar, one suddenly gets the feeling that they’ve been in a sonic closet with Paul and her contraptions. The almost-claustrophobic nature of many of these songs don’t become apparent until this juxtaposition occurs.
The first song, “Dragon,” features Paul’s frail vocals over low-key sonic mayhem. There is so much bowing and scraping in addition to what sounds like all manner of mechanical objects being put into play, that one can imagine Tom Waits at Paul’s studio door, yelling “LET ME IN! LET ME AT THAT STUFF!” But Paul gives the contraptions center stage, moving her voice to the periphery – something Waits would never do. Another way of looking at what Paul is doing throughout the recording, but especially on “Dragon,” is to compare it to the second and third tracks of Sun Ra’s “Strange Strings”; there is a naiveté here, a sense that Paul is pushing herself out of her comfort zone, playing instruments that are not her strongest suit. Which makes the listening experience that much more transfixing.
The second track on side one, “I’m Finding You,” actually does place Paul’s voice in the forefront. It’s a much shorter piece with beautifully strained vocals that speak to a faith held despite certain odds that only the singer knows (“I’m finding you / I know you’re there). The guitar is much more prevalent in this track, reminding one of a combination of Derek Bailey-lite with echoes of Mary Halvorson.
The final song on side one is sort of a reprise of “Dragon,” but without vocals and with quite a bit more unrestrained mayhem. Side two opens with the almost ballad-like title track, again concerned with the themes of loss and finding. Paul pulls out some truly beautiful guitar work and vocals on this one. Since we’ve already mentioned Bailey, Halvorsen, and Sun Ra, one more analogy can’t hurt. “White Night” sounds like a dead ringer for much of the early 80s post-Henry Cow “Rock in Opposition” output, particularly Lindsay Cooper’s “News from Babel” project. One almost expects to hear Dagmar Krause or Robert Wyatt join in on the vocals.
The second track on side 2, “Goodbyes,” is also reminiscent of the noisier side of the Rock in Opposition movement. Fred Frith’s “guitars on the table” style of playing and the “Downtown” improv scene of the early/mid-80s is directly referenced here, to amazing effect. The final track, “Run the Walls,” continues the RIO theme, sounding more like very-late period Henry Cow and Art Bears recordings. Paul really manages to go against the vocals heard previously, for a more cacophonous effect, reminiscent of what Dagmar Krause was doing in the Art Bears in the early 1980s.
All these referents shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is a distinctly original album by a multi-talented artist still finding her place in the musical world. After listening to this cassette, one might hope she never does find her place.