By now, we’re accustomed to seeing artists releasing COVID-era records that are stripped down and streamlined—a necessary accommodation to the pandemic’s many restrictions. The question then arises: what about the artists whose work was already stripped down and streamlined? In Half Gringa’s new EP, “Ancestral Home,” we have an answer, which is: the same, but more so.
Half Gringa is the project of singer-songwriter Isabel Olive; the name is reflective not only of her Venezuelan American roots, but of her two streams of influence. In “Ancestral Home,” a sheltering Olive (shut in not only by the pandemic but, for a time, by a broken foot) takes a more in-depth and considered investigation of both her ancestry and her identity; the resultant record is at times stark, at times hallucinatory, and both emotionally and sonically raw. Some of the instrumentation is MIDI, so there are stretches that have the roughness of a demo track, and others where drummer Abby Black, pianist/bassist/synth player Nicholas Papaleo and Olive herself on guitars and vocals, provide a glossy studio sheen.
Olive’s voice is suitably pitched to the tone of the record; she’s right on the mic, and sings in an incantatory style that holds you steady in the center of the song as the walls all around it—narrative, temporal and existential—fold in on each other. Olive is pursuing her identity both by burrowing in and reaching out. The opening tune, “Some Curse,” is a mission statement, and pays tribute to the multitudes that—like all of us—Olive contains within her specificity. “There’s a woman inside,” she sings, “and she dies protecting me every night.” There’s an exhilarating moment where she invokes breathless discovery with an almost literally breathless delivery: “I know you’re here / She says, in fear / When it takes my—breath—from—me / It restores yours.”
In the following tune, “Miranda” (the EP’s first single and video) finds Olive—in a dreamlike chant over a funk-driven bass line—serenading what seems to be both a former self and her battle-scarred mirror image.
Please don’t take off your disguise
Tell me you love me, Miranda
Suits you so well and besides
It’s who you become in the end
“Sevenwater” plays out like a lilting folk ballad, but on closer examination it’s about inexorability: the slow grinding, and grinding down, of time, and our helplessness before it—as well as, if I’m reading it right, our complicity in it. “Stick a pin into the wheel to stop it spinning,” Olive sings, “Sighing try to rid the waste of intrusion / I feel a chill and am it, goddammit.”
That “I am it, goddammit” line is just one of the many lyric moments that gild the record; in my review of Half Gringa’s previous release I exalted the poetry of her lyrics, and as gifted as she is as a composer and singer, that’s what launches her into the stratosphere. Many songwriters have tackled the grip that blood and memory have on us, but in “No Kind of Fire” Olive attacks the same subject with freshness, fleetness and stark originality: “If I shot an arrow into a heap of bleached bones would you feel better?” she sings. “Is all this carnage necessary? Would a symbol make you feel better?”
But it might be the record’s opening lines—brief, almost staccato, no embellishments or flourishes—that best exemplify her gift. She spins spareness into eloquence—and then keeps doing it, over five extraordinary songs.
Chasing the rain
Put hands up and it hurts
Not to be lying
Side by side
To move past words
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.