Gem Club’s songs are dimly lit, interior monologues, at turns spare and lush, elliptical in narrative. Listening feels like following a thread of memory, now clearly delineated, now faded and misty. Even happy recollections turn spectrally thin and melancholy under this kind of treatment. “I heard…the party,” croons Christopher Barnes, in the song of the same name, his hushed voice evoking the time and distance that separates us from our fondest memories.
Gem Club is Barnes and Kristen Drymala, two classically trained musicians out of Boston, with, I would guess, a fascination for the evocative simplicity of Erik Satie. The duo’s playing on these wispy tunes is off-handedly assured, pared down and restrained. Even the French horn in “Twins” seems remarkably unshowy and delicate. The fragility and purity of these songs can remind you of early Low, the Lost Wisdom collaboration between Julie Doiron and Phil Elverum and The xx, though in this latter case, without the sexual heat.
Breakers is both luxuriant and minimal, its slow songs unwinding amid minor-key patterns of piano chords, rising throbs of cello, haphazard thumps and rattles of drum and the androgynous purity of Barnes’ voice. Sudden spaces appear in the interstices between piano notes, in the interval between phrases, as if the songs might gutter out like candles, though they pick up again after a pause and wander on in solitary contemplation.
There is a sense of alone-ness here, of souls brushing against each other but never really connecting. The first and finale line of “Twins” ventures, amid rising piano chords, that “The wind shook the kiss from your mouth, before I could learn whose twin I was.” Barnes’ words trail off into a whisper, as Drymala answers with an eerily thin flourish of cello. The two of them come together without really touching, without really bridging the distance between.
That sense of sparseness, isolation and melancholy clears in “252,” the album’s best and most beautiful track. Here the two principals sing together, their voices swelling first in unison, later shading into harmonies on the arc-ing gospel-tinged chorus. It’s a shock, hearing what has been gauzy and indefinite resolve into certainty, but no less illuminating for all that.
Breakers is a gorgeous oddity, one of the year’s most arresting albums of any kind, and “252” hints at the potential for even better material ahead. Quiet hasn’t been the new loud for some time, but maybe it’s the new beautiful.