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Carla dal Forno, "Look Up Sharp"

cover imageThe downside to releasing a beloved and perfectly distilled EP like The Garden is that there will eventually have to be a follow-up to it and people will expect it to be every bit as good (if not better) than its predecessor. That is an unenviable level of creative pressure to be confronted with, but Carla dal Forno seems to have passed through it with grace and aplomb (and even managed to start her own record label along the way). To her credit, dal Forno was not at all interested in making The Garden II, though her subsequent cover album (Top of the Pops) seems to have provided a rough template, as she has clearly been thinking a lot about what goes into constructing a good and memorable pop song. Having internalized that, she then wrote a bunch of her own. In a broad sense, it is very apparent that dal Forno is heavily influenced by the classic minimalist post-punk/indie pop of Young Marble Giants and AC Marias, but the best songs on Look Up Sharp feel like an inspired update rather than a loving homage, as she strikes a truly elegant balance of pared-to-the-bone starkness, muscular bass riffs, casual sensuousness, and understated experimentation.


Both dal Forno's new Kallista imprint and Look Up Sharp made their teasingly brief first appearances earlier this year with the "So Much Better" 7" single.As far as lead singles go, that half-lilting/half-biting break-up song was a solid pick, as it is an appealingly sincere and direct song that nevertheless packs quite a scathing sentiment in its lurching, slow-motion melancholy.While the explicit sentiment is very clearly "I am done with you and I am moving forward," the rest of the album seems to address love and heartache a bit more tenderly, sensually, and poetically, so I suspect "So Much Better" was one of the earliest pieces composed for this album. It would make sense if it was, as some of the other songs on the album elevate dal Forno's constrained palette of bass/drum machine/voice into something so much better than "So Much Better."In fact, barring a few instrumentals, just about every single song on Look Up Sharp could be a strong single.While her impressive knack for crafting tight songs with great hooks has been evident right from the beginning (see "Fast Moving Cars"), dal Forno has gotten much more skilled at weeding out her weaker material over the years.She has also evolved quite a bit from the comparatively bloodless, reverb-swathed murkiness of her ghostly early work.The end result of those two transformations is that the Carla dal Forno of 2019 has a truly impressive hit-to-miss ratio and her best moments make a much deeper impact than the more style-driven fare of You Know What it is Like.She has always had a very cool and distinctive aesthetic, but the songs at the foundation of that aesthetic now feel honest and open in a more meaningful way.

To my ears, there are at least two stone-cold, instant classics lurking among these ten songs.My favorite piece by a landslide is "Don't Follow Me," which is built from a lovely, multitracked vocal motif that feels almost like a choral hymnal.From there, it ingeniously blossoms into a lazily smoldering groove of corroded bass tones, a spartan kick/snare pattern, chiming chord stabs, and a shifting nimbus of lysergic swells and melody fragments.It is probably the most beautiful song on the album, but it also benefits greatly from the ramshackle, blackened accompaniment that relentlessly stomps forward beneath the floating, heavenly vocals.The contrast between those two poles is absolutely perfect, as dal Forno evokes angelic beauty in a ragged and ruined landscape (and then brings it all to a close with actual fireworks).The other highlight is "Took A Long Time," which skillfully combines a meaty descending bass line, a clattering drum machine shuffle, and great vocal hook, then gradually warms and fills with color as synth tones languorously undulate in the periphery.There is also second tier of songs that are nearly as great, such as the opening "No Trace," which augments a heavy, rolling groove with streaking, spaced-out splashes of synth color.Elsewhere, "I'm Conscious" unfolds as a wonderfully shambling meditation on longing and regret.Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the album's instrumentals are quite likable as well, even if they are mostly palette-cleansers to bridge the more fully formed pieces.I especially like "Hype Sleep," which marries a warm, ringing bass melody to a tinny, vaguely Latin drum machine groove.I actually wish dal Forno had explored that direction a bit more, as understatedly playful drum machine beats are an excellent counterbalance to her more introspective, hypnagogic side.

I also enjoyed the dreamily lush and melodic "Leaving For Japan," which is a side of dal Forno's art that I rarely get to encounter.To some degree, I would be absolutely delighted if she eased up her constrained aesthetic to allow for more pieces in that vein, but I suspect she is reluctant to record many songs that she cannot perform live with just a bass.Aside from that practical consideration, the extremely minimal instrumentation of dal Forno's work is admittedly an extremely effective approach artistically.There are a lot of ways to craft a great song, but dal Forno consistently challenges herself to do it in the hardest way possible at this point in her career: writing hooks and melodies strong enough to carry a piece even if all of the accompanying music, production touches, and arrangement flourishes were completely stripped away.That is what I admire most about Carla dal Forno's work.She is an excellent songwriter and has lots of creative ideas for fleshing out her simple, bass-driven pieces, but the larger achievement is that she is just a woman with a bass who is very intent on making a direct and undiluted human connection with listeners.I suppose such a fearless and assured avoidance to artistic distance and artifice would not matter much if Look Up Sharp did not also have great songs, but it has those too, which is why exactly Carla dal Forno remains one of the most compelling and vital songwriters in underground music.

Samples can be found here.