By Robert Rodi
Haley Fohr is very young—just twenty-five—but she sounds like some ancient oracle. Her rich, resonant female baritone has a lower range that rumbles ominously, like plate tectonics, and an upper that’s so dizzyingly perched, it can induce vertigo. On pure vocal fireworks alone, the new album by her brainchild, Circuit des Yeux, is a galvanizing listen; but it’s got much more than that going for it. Less a collection of songs than a trek across her sonic headspace, “In Plain Speech” is a remarkable document of a budding composer’s development. And lest that come off as condescending, let me just add that she’s already leagues ahead of many singer-songwriters twice her age. The album opens with “Do the Dishes,” in which Scarlatti-type harpsichord runs pulse beneath a lyric that might almost serve as a statement of purpose—a pledge from artist to muse: “There is something deep inside of you. / Something that’s worth reaching into / It makes me tremble / It makes me shake / It’s a risk I’m willing to take.” And risk she does, following a driving, Celtic-influenced melody, “Ride Blind” (“The brightest stars have no meaning / Do you shine to be seen? / Do you shine by machine?”), with an eight-minute suite called “Dream of TV,” in which harmonic repetition and hyperkinetic plucking strings build to a jagged crescendo, with the singer’s haunting cry in the background. It’s a wail of despair at the deadening effect of an endless barrage of images (as represented by the title appliance). “Fantasize the Scene” is the most conventional tune—a straight-ahead indie-rock ballad that builds in power, complexity and imagery; but we don’t realize how far out we still are from the mainstream until the final track, “In the Late Afternoon,” which is the first to feature a guitar, and that staple of rock-song instrumentation washes in like a cleansing rain shower after the weightiness of so much bass and synth. The lyrics, too, have a sense of arrival, and of valediction: “ Rise from the rubble / Wake up / I sing from the plains, my song echoes, it reigns for you.” “In Plain Speech” does what albums are supposed to do: it takes you on a journey, and lands you on a farther shore. I’m not entirely sure where that is yet; but I’m pretty sure I like it here.
“In Plain Speech” can be purchased through the usual channels, as well as on the Thrill Jockey Records website.
Jazz singer Keri Johnsrud’s new album is her first of all-original material, which proves to be a smart move. Writing her own songs (with pianist Kevin Bales) gives her an opportunity to tailor each tune to her voice—which is cool, agile and intimate; and while she borrows from established genres for rhythm and color, the point of view can’t help remaining entirely her own. “From Here” is a superb opener, drawing you in with a persistent but not overpowering groove, over which Johnsrud glides like a figure-skater. There’s a seventies flavor to it—and I mean that in the best sense; the solos by Bales and bassist Larry Kohut have the rippling, liquid quality of that decade’s best fusion. “When Morning Dawns,” by contrast, has the feel of a classical art song, while “If and When” is breezy and bossa-inflected, and “Everything’s Okay” could almost be a Broadway anthem. The lyrics throughout aren’t quite so adventurous, tending to hew to exploration of feelings and fears in terms not entirely new to listeners; but they serve the material well, and occasionally offer up some turns of phrase that make you sit up and take notice, as in the wave-like ballad, “A Thousand Tears”: “Sweet is your word / Tender is your touch / You’re the one everyone wants / But nobody gets / ‘Better days ahead’ is what they always say / But who, who are they?” Johnsrud never sells any line short, and her commitment wins you over—as does the sheer suppleness and sweetness of her singing. She remains self-confidently sangfroid—there’s no tail-wagging appeal for your approval—which is probably why she secures it. Ditto her players, who in addition to Bales and Kohut include Jon Deitemyer on drums, Stephen Lynerd on vibes and Neal Alger on guitar. Everyone manages a few killer solos—notably Lynerd with a beautifully contemplative performance on “Here I Am,” and Deitemyer and Alger with rousing funk turns on the album’s sizzling closer, “The Chameleon.” I missed the CD-release gig at the Green Mill earlier this month; I’d have liked to see whether a full, energized room inspired Johnsrud and the players to add a little heat to the mix. But there’s always next time. Until then, I’ll keep spinning this baby, and chilling out to its seductive cool.
“This Side of Morning” can be purchased through the usual channels, as well as on Keri Johnsrud’s website.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.