JULIE CARPENTER, who records for Texas’ home of boundary-pushing out-rock and drone beauty Kranky, has journeyed from musical academia at the University of North Texas, through session work as a violinist for bands such as Eels, to finding her own musical self as Less Bells.
She released a graceful and beautiful set, Solifuge, for the label a little over two years back: eight luxuriously deep and blissful pieces fully inspired by the high Californian deserts of the Joshua Tree National Park, near her adopted Los Angeles base.
Now she is ready to offer her second set, Mourning Jewelry, to the world: an album by turns sorrowful, occasionally eerie, soft, enveloping and beauteous.
This set takes its title from accoutrements worn in memoriam of lost loved ones: a theme perhaps all too real in this most ravaged and off-balanced of years. It aims, and hits, a quiet and graceful air of remembrance, catharsis and summation, looking in her words to “create beauty out of grief.” We need not ask the particulars of her loss; we should just listen. It’s there, communicated, refashioned and made sound.
The cover art is almost Victorian, with a woman – Julie herself? – part-mourner, part almost burlesque in the context of some periodical, some arcane magazine of the time.
“Brooch” opens the journey with otherworldly synth swoops, redolent of Selected Ambient Works. But if unfolds into a more heat-hazed, analogue shimmer, with high synth sustain, strings coursing past as if swooping birds, deep bass pulses. Choirs chorus, a la Arvo Pärt. It’s high classical reimagined for an electronic world, and it’s awesome, in the more arcane, rather the teen interjection, sense of the word. It climaxes in deep rumble and microtonal slide, that choir lashed fast to their clarion call.
“Fiery Wings” layers up on feedback like dropping vines, a repeating keyboard piano as understudy for a string melody that weaves in and out. It flows with grace and the width of a soundtrack; a string figure commands above the other more ghostly layers. Voices yearn a wordless response as the surrounding texture weaves ever more complex; sustained drone takes hold across the full instrumentation, all suddenly yawing to a conclusion in retro synth patterning and dark thrum.
“The Gates”, along with other tracks on the album, takes its name from a concept of an alternative major tarot arcana. Let’s not tarry too long with the obvious collocation of grieving and gates; the track has a letting go, based on a repeating piano figure and the choir. It’s quite Johann Johannsson in its sum; and that, of course, is no criticism.
“The Queen of Crickets”, again a figure from this conjectured card pack – you can almost picture her form, craven, hosting her insect swarm – opens eerily with wiry, claw-hammered banjo. It finds itself flooded with a deep and wide build of sustain, resonances and overtones surging, only to reappear, heralding space; strings mourn in a minor figure. If this is loss documented, then this is the dark, overwhelming, scalding grace of it, as anyone who has grieved will know; those moments when the emotion of it is flooding, exultant. All of which is very precisely a mirror of “The Queen of Crickets” and the subsequent “The Fault”, which form for me the bleeding emotional heart of this work.
This latter opens in a soft, wordless female caress, again to slowly exceed and crescendo in the scald of sustain. Immerse in these two tracks and your breath almost catches.
And really, there’s not a lot of emotional let-up for “Plait”: this is almost subterranean in its drone expression, which inhales, exhales over subtle electronics; there’s a rawness in is beauty. It scratches, draws forth from beneath your skin.
The album closes with “The Fang”, which was released to tease the album last month; we reviewed it here. It does offer light and a more formal, almost intervened lofty melodicism after the album’s beautifully raw core. A metronomic guitar strum marks the beat for the climbing three-note strings and swelling synths. It’s arresting and beautiful. It concludes almost too swiftly, leaves you spurned in an emotional and aural freefall.
Has Julie set out to fashion beauty from grief, as is her self-appointed remit for this album? Indeed she has. The album is complex, charged, powerful, bittersweet, even close to overwhelming in its catharsis and depiction. She has taken all the darkness and grace and potency of grief and communicated it without recourse to a single lyric.
This is an album to wrap in, to surrender to. But be careful: keep your heart close.
Les Bells’ Mourning Jewelry will be released by Kranky on CD and LP on August 21st. Order your copy at https://kranky.net/