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Saariselka, "The Ground Our Sky"

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cover imageIt is quite rare for two artists with successful solo careers to team up for a genuinely strong collaborative project that offers a fresh vision, but this debut full-length from Marielle V. Jakobsons and Chuck Johnson is the elusive exception that is arguably better than the sum of its parts.  I say "arguably" only because each artist is already responsible (or at least partly responsible) for some albums that I have absolutely loved in the past.  Notably, however, both artists have undergone significant stylistic evolutions in their careers, which may very well be the secret to a truly egoless and organic confluence of visions: neither was rigidly tied to a signature style, so finding a fertile common ground was probably just a natural outcome after playing together for a while.  That said, the clear antecedent to this project is Johnson's gorgeous Balsams album (his first on pedal steel).  As someone who was thoroughly beguiled by that album, it never would have occurred to me that Johnson might have been able to reach even greater heights with the help of a sympathetic foil on Fender Rhodes, but I am delighted that it occurred to Jakobsons (and that she was completely right).

Temporary Residence

As someone who is quite fond of both Marielle Jakobsons' early work as Darwinsbitch and her collaborations with Agnes Szelag (Myrmyr, EJS), I still occasionally have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that the same artist is also behind Date Palms and Saariselka.  Every great artist changes over the course of their career, but the aesthetic gulf between Jakobsons' days as a formidable violinist and her recent sun-dappled, meditative reveries is quite a substantial one.  While her newer albums are too varied and distinctive to quite bleed into the New Age vogue, she has definitely become synonymous with a style of earthy, laid-back psychedelia that feels very "California" to me. 

In that regard, Jakobsons and pedal steel-era Johnson are very much kindred spirits and The Ground Our Sky is an archetypal example of that evocative stylistic niche.  In fact, that terrain proves to be surprisingly fertile and shifting creative ground for the pair, as these six songs take a number of different and intriguing directions.  To some degree, it feels like Jakobsons and Johnson alternated taking the lead on songwriting, as some pieces feel more driven by organ and some by guitar.  On the strongest pieces, however, the instruments merge together so organically and beautifully that they seem to have sprang into the world fully formed.  "Void" is the most sublime success story in that vein, as Jakobsons' twinkling organ arpeggios leave lovely vapor trails while Johnson's swooning and chiming pedal steel weaves a shimmering haze of its own.  It is a strikingly beautiful and lush piece of music, as well as one of the few songs in which Jakobsons sings, resulting in quite a woozily wonderful swirl of dreampop heaven.

Elsewhere, the opening "Horizons" is yet another gem, as a lazily winding and chiming organ motif blossoms into a vivid new vista once Johnson's ringing arpeggios, sliding chords, and shivering sustained notes start to elegantly intertwine with the original theme.  "Into The Wind" is a highlight as well, as a gently swaying and languorous web of arpeggios slowly coheres into a hushed vocal piece embellished by lazily glimmering organ melodies and bleary pedal steel glissando.  I am also quite fond of the more diffuse and ambient-minded "Neochrome," in which a gently rippling, slow-motion succession of organ chords provides a loose backdrop for pedal steel that feels like a soft-focus ghost ballet.  The closing "Afterlight" is another piece that approximates ambient drone territory, but it is a far more radiant variation, as Johnson's guitars lazily smear together over a warm bed of drones like the final streaks of a gorgeous pink and violet sunset.  Only the sleepily burbling "Subsurface" feels like a misstep: it is all sunny psych shimmer without any added depth or shadow to give it some necessary gravitas.  That said, there are plenty of artists who have made careers mining similar territory, so perhaps it is just more of a direction that is subjectively (if emphatically) not for me.  Saariselka are far too good to be delving into Kosmische pastiche or homage. 

For the most part, however, every direction that Jakobsons and Johnson explore tends to be quite an appealing and absorbing one: The Ground Our Sky simultaneously delivers on the promise of 2018's Ceres and expands that earlier vision in some very inspired ways.  I was especially struck by "Void," as I had not anticipated this project ever creeping into Julee Cruise-esque "pop" territory (or doing it quite so beautifully if they did).  The real magic of this union transcends the success of any individual song though, as Jakobsons and Johnson seem very much attuned to the same cosmic vibrations and their twin visions complement each other perfectly.  Also, I was surprised anew by how much emotion and heavenly beauty Johnson is able to conjure from a pedal steel, as I have never viewed it as a particularly promising lead instrument (and tend to prefer my guitars inventively misused rather than played properly).  Between this album, Balsams, and Ayami, however, Johnson has decisively won me over to both the instrument and his artistic vision for it–the man is on quite an impressive run of releases these days and this album only continues that trend.  It is damn hard to make radiant, gentle, and quietly lovely music that has real depth and soul: when they are at their best, Saariselka manage to do it better than just about anybody.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 04 November 2019 22:53  


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