Julianna Barwick has a knack for apt titles. The Brooklyn-based vocalist has one song on her third record, The Magic Place, entitled "Cloak." The opener is called "Envelop." It's like she's saving us time with verbs; self-describing a sound whose all-encompassing grandeur wraps audiences in an audio blanket.
Barwick builds herself into a one-woman choir, using a loop pedal to layer on wordless wails until they crest in cascading waves of sound: a thousand voices swimming in shifting, shimmering tide.
To say the effect 'washes over you' aptly describes the way it feels to listen to Barwick use her voice —and often only her voice— to create these whole atmospheres of sound. But if that suggests her sound can wash off you, then forget it. This isn't ambient muzak; background sound for flotation tanks or waiting rooms. It's vivid and vital, and profoundly human.
The Magic Place —perhaps Barwick's most apt title of all— is named after a back-pasture tree on the rural Louisiana farm on which she grew up. As children, the towering birch's branches provided a place of escape for Julianna and siblings, and so they blessed it with a name the spoke of the wonder of scrambling through its seas of green, nestled in wind-kissed leaves, somewhere up in the sky.
Magic and Mysticism (My Critical Interpretive Dancing)
Whilst it's evocative to imagine this majestic tree Barwick has paid tribute to, that's the least of what will happen to listeners. Barwick's non-specific sound —instruments are rarely, sparely employed; there's little rhythm; and even when she's singing words, they're not exactly crisply enunciated— is likely to make listeners think of their own childhoods, of their own memories, of their own feelings of nostalgia; that happy/sad quality of remembering things past, times of innocence and despair long ago lost to the forward march of time.
It's hard to write about The Magic Place without it becoming your own form of critical interpretive dancing; hard to just parse Barwick's tunes for theme and meaning and put them in a cultural context, as opposed to raiding your own memories, or waxing rhapsodic with images of rainforests and waterfalls and thunderstorms.
It's an album that defies pat summaries, rote reductions, and cheap comparisons. It defies being defined: it's as visceral as a cloud of dust, as tangible as a spirit-world, and trying to grasp it is, like grabbing at the air, predictably futile. The Magic Place sounds out, and stands out, as something utterly unique and absolutely, ridiculously beautiful.
These are rare artistic climes that Barwick is inhabiting: her album individual but not alienating, personal yet still universal, all things to all people, but never any one thing. It's different every time you play it: Barwick's art, and her audio, feeling as if alive in that instant. These are, somehow, not simply mere songs on playback, but some mystical, magical phenomenon happening right there in your ear.
Record Label: Asthmatic Kitty
Release Date: February 22, 2011