Yvonne Cornelius (aka Niobe) won a lot of people over with her 2006 album White Hats, not least this listener –I also remember reading David Byrne, in an end-of-year issue of Artforum, raving about Niobe by White Hats – which I suspect had something to do with the way her voice curled and caressed vowels and consonants, forcing her throat through a harmoniser so she created an errant chorus of Niobes, flipping over on itself much like her songs. It was an exceptionally seductive sound. But at their heart, the songs on White Hats were beautiful pop moments, and when it took off on a perfect three minutes of electro-disco at its close (“Cool Alpine”), White Hats suggested Cornelius might mutate into an avant-disco diva on her next record.
But Niobe’s not one to do anything as predictable as calling a listener’s bluff. On Blackbird’s Echo, Niobe sounds freer – or, at the very least, a lot less certain of when and how to end things, or how to structure them, which is a freedom of sorts. It drops you head-on into uncertainty: opener “Silicone Soul” sounds oddly generative, as though you’re walking in on an acoustic lament that’s unfolding over hours. The following “You Have A Gift” lopes along on a queasy seesaw of a guitar riff, seasick and blurred. By “Time Is Kindling”, a duet with David Grubbs, Cornelius is fast-forwarding and rewinding through tape recordings and smearing the results over an already unstable beast of a song. It’s thrilling because at first you’re not sure if this works.
Maybe it’s the Grubbs connection, but at moments like these, Blackbird’s Echo has me flashing on the wilful abstraction of the Red Krayola at their most ornery, albeit with a pop ingénue’s ear. Elsewhere, Cornelius plays it a little straighter: “Cadillac Night” revisits the electronica-at-the-water’s-edge drowsiness of White Hats, while “Lovely Day” pivots on a delightful loop of toytown jazz, though the field recordings that surround it takes the ‘band’ and drops them in the midst of a swampland. Even then, Cornelius further upsets the balance by splicing the song in two with a short, jagged shock of noise.
This kind of peculiarity often sounds a bit wilful and forced, a deliberate attempt to be odd, or to lazily ‘deconstruct’ (in the most pejorative sense) pop’s structures. But Cornelius is way too canny for that. Rather, Blackbird’s Echo gives you access to the artist’s thinking – you can hear her pleasure in each newly upturned discovery, her excitement in the juxtaposition of loops, or samples, or instruments, or voices. It’s pop with its innards on display, before it’s been forced back into its box. And a lot more exciting, and unpredictably and blissfully melodic, for it.