Midwife, "Prayer Hands" EP
Recorded during the turbulent period following the closure of beloved Denver DIY space Rhinoceropolis, Prayer Hands takes the hazy, melancholy dream-pop beauty of Like Author, Like Daughter and distills it into a gut-punch of simmering and seething emotion. While the swooning, elegantly blurred pop of "Angel" is probably the release's biggest hook, Madeline Johnston and collaborator Tucker Theodore gamely expand the Midwife aesthetic in some more visceral and experimental directions as well. The result is a near-perfect release that features three gorgeously haunting gems of hissing and hypnagogic shoegaze heaven in a row.
The EP opens with the brief title piece, a dreamily warm and bittersweet web of rippling arpeggios that fades away after a couple minutes.While it ostensibly ends as a scratchy and unintentionally poetic answering machine message signals the start of the slow-burning "Forever," the two pieces feel like they segue together to deliciously prolong the gathering storm that finally breaks open when Johnston starts singing.While her vocals are characteristically melodic, tender, and languorously sensuous, they are doubled in quite a compelling and unique way.If I had to guess, I would say that the second layer of vocals are likely emerging from Theodore, but they are processed in such a way that they feel snarling and inhumanly infernal, lying somewhere between a rasping and demonic death metal howl and a strangled squall of white noise that seems to be supernaturally shaping itself into an approximation of a human voice.It is a wonderfully striking illusion.More than anyone else, Johnston seemed to have learned something crucial from Grouper, but found a way to do something new with it.While Johnston's vocals admittedly share Liz Harris's penchant for hazy reverb, the vocals on "Forever" do not sound like they are emerging from a fog so much as they sound like an unnerving interdimensional duet with a static demon.Few genres benefit from an infusion of visceral, otherworldly snarl more than dream-pop and shoegaze, as the tendency is to smother songs in too many effects or fall into the trap of thinking that the effects themselves are a song.With "Forever," Johnston and Theodore strike the perfect balance between slow-motion, soft-focus beauty and an undercurrent of screaming chaos.The vocal effects here simultaneously create a fog and viscerally tear through it.
Johnston's spectral double returns again for the more straightforwardly pretty "Angel," albeit in noticeably muted form, as her lilting vocal melody merely swirls through a haze of crackle and hiss.As with "Forever," it is an absolutely lovely song, but it is a much more benign one‚Äìit feels like a break-up song that is more of a tender reminiscence than a raw wound (and nothing supernatural seems to be trying to claw its way out of my speakers).In particular, Johnston and Theodore do an especially stellar job at fleshing the piece out with subtle layers of depth and color, gradually evolving from gauzy, shimmering guitar noise into a lovely coda that transforms the piece into a charming bit of sun-dappled backporch psychedelia (all the distortion falls away to leave only a lilting slide guitar melody, a strummed acoustic guitar, and a slow pulse of swelling reversed chords).Naturally, a piece entitled "Angel" has to be followed by a counterbalancing piece entitled "Demon," leading Prayer Hands into its droning, experimental and wonderfully hallucinatory final act."Demon" slowly fades in on a wave of tape hiss that sounds like waves cresting on a beach, but moaning layers of unintelligible backwards vocals gradually start to converge into a slow pulse.Soon after, that surreal tape loop miasma starts to shape itself into soaring and whooshing vocal flourishes and the guitar and drums finally kick in, dragging the spacey, undulating soundscape into a woozily beautiful instrumental swirling with buried melodies and intertwining, serpentine solos.In essence, it is a total psych-rock freak-out, Midwife-style: a glacial unfolding feast of seething layers and masterfully controlled, slow-building tension that never fully boils over.
With Prayer Hands, Midwife has officially entered the exclusive pantheon of Artists Who Have Floored Me Twice, as Madeline Johnston retains everything that was wonderful about her debut, but eliminates absolutely everything that diluted the cathartic power at the project's core.There is much to love here, as Johnston intuitively and organically stretches and reshapes conventional song structures to serve her slow-motion beauty perfectly and even the darkest stretches are alive with passion and melody.Moreover, she has crafted a moving elegy for an entire community (as well as an unintended one for a close friend) that feels like a transcendently great, soulful, and vibrantly alive dream-pop album.That is no small feat.In fact, Prayer Hands favorably reminds me of a half-remembered Charles Bukowski quote about why he was bored by Albert Camus: he preferred writers who screamed when they burned (existentially, not literally).Though I am sure that I totally mangled the quote, the sentiment has stuck with me for decades, as the world is full of art that buries its raw emotional core in mannered artifice.Midwife definitely does not fall into that trap, as Johnston's vision is a volcano swathed in dreamlike fog.This is everything I could possibly want in an EP: great songs, heartfelt intensity, depth, and plenty of unconventional ideas executed masterfully.Prayer Hands is easily one of my favorite releases of 2018.