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Julianna Barwick - Florine

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Artist: Julianna Barwick

Album: Florine

Label: Florid

Review date: Dec. 11, 2009

Julianna Barwick - "Sunlight, Heaven"

In the 1980s, Cocteau Twins played to audiences who, on the whole, had no idea what lead singer Elizabeth Fraser was saying. And even earlier, Edda Dell’Orso’s wordless jazz vocals were just as quizzical in campy Italian B-movie scores, demonstrating an approach to music that was so freewheeling, it precluded etymological tenets. Those artists strung vamps of jargon together, both plaintive and carefree like the world of a child who makes up words and phrases.

The modus operandi of Julianna Barwick is similar: "Singing without words is something I’ve always done, I just kind of make up my own language in a way," she told Dusted’s Ben Tausig in a Destined article in January. Like the Twins’ dream pop and Dell’Orso’s “scat-singing,” she is not overly concerned with text, but rather subtext -- feelings and thoughts that simply can’t be spelled out.

Having spent her formative years singing in churches, it seems to inform not only her sound on Florine, but the EP’s spiritual motifs themselves; song titles like “The Highest” (with the EP’s only discernable lyric, “To the highest,” sung in refrain), “Sunlight, Heaven” and “Anjos” (Portuguese for “angel”) point to this. Barwick arranges the melodic phrasing on her millennial hymns carefully, recalling rapt Melanesian chants with similar oceanic inflection, creating an apparitional one-woman choir.

Her name often appears in relation to Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (even in today’s line-up of reviews, oddly enough), which, aesthetically speaking, isn’t far off the mark; the two share an obsession with reverb-doused vocals and loop-based song craft. Beyond composition though, the space she creates with her post-processed vocals achieves eerie results, unlike her Brooklyn contemporaries, like soprano and contralto choruses bouncing around a cathedral’s chamber. Take the simple waltzing piano loops along side Barwick’s own lonely, naked voice on “Anjos”; herein lays the echoes of emptiness felt after catharsis, a feeling that resonates throughout Florine’s hopeful yet melancholic bent.

On the hypnotic finale “Bode,” chipmunk shrills float above her cyclical vocals. Dizzying and beautiful at once, it is unlike anything else from 2009.

By Jon Dempsey

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