(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Recording review - Wendy Atkinson, The Last Fret (2015)

Welcome to the gallery of memory


The Last Fret is not so much an album as it is a sonic art installation dedicated to memory. That makes it more concerned with evoking particular moods than trying to fit into conventional songwriting structures. Wendy Atkinson's relatively short sketches achieve her targeted effect by exploring feelings of introspection, loss, and hope. She cloaks her bass with pensive ambient washes, electronic textures, and field recordings, occasionally expanding the tracks with other instruments or spoken word segments.

Our first stop in this gallery walk is "What Came Before", which creates the sense of moving through a foggy landscape of memory. Swells of electronic tone loom, but melt back into the featureless cotton before their details can register. Atkinson summons a distance between the events she's teasing apart and her need to find understanding and closure. The elegiac mood is reminiscent of Panderecki.

A couple of tracks later, another piece catches my deeper attention. "In the Off Season" pensively sways between two chords. While the title implies the idea of marking time, it feels more like two focal points of an old debate, where repetition has worn the exchange into an endless ellipse: neither side can ever win or even stand alone without the context of its negation. This is a fitting setup for "Hebron Birds", which draws on Atkinson's experience in that city. Her muddy, noisy recording of a chance encounter with a group of laughing girls in a mosque forms the internal recollection behind her spoken word piece that contrasts the "joyfulness, trust, and curiosity" of these girls with the troubled city they live in. It's a political statement but still emphatically personal. The simple instrumental accompaniment shades the story but stays to the background.

Two of the tracks disrupt the ambiance of the showing by falling outside the arc of the album. Her deconstruction of Chain and the Gang's "What is a Dollar" fits sonically but the anti-capitalist lyrics don't really connect thematically. By contrast, the wistful pop song structure of "Ukulele Shock" is shocking itself amidst the more expressive experimentation of the other tracks. Atkinson matter-of-factly relates a story from her youth, which ties the tune back to the central theme, but the punch line ending injects a touch of deadpan humor that also feels odd in this setting. Either of these songs might have best been saved for another setting, but fortunately they don't do any lasting damage to the coherent motif of The Last Fret.

Atkinson brings a rich range of textures and techniques to her work. The brevity of pieces often leave you wanting more, or perhaps a more detailed evolution, but her impressionistic, "less is more" approach leaves room for interpretation on subsequent visits. Her songs never overstay their welcome in part because she doesn't place too much weight on delicate structure of her material, The Last Fret is a thoughtful collection worthy of a relaxed afternoon or evening visit..

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