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Music Review: Julia Marcell – June

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I’ll admit to being disappointed when I first listened to June. This is very different from Julia Marcell’s previous work, and I had to adjust my perspective in order to hear what this album really is. Her stream of consciousness storytelling approach to music and lyrics isn’t there, and my first impression was that this was her attempt at a more commercially viable pop album. Granted, if it were a random pop album I had been sent, I would be pleased with it, but I hold Marcell to a higher standard. After a conversation with her, I learned that this is a transition album, rather than an arrival, though she may disagree with me with me on that point.

You hear the difference immediately. The first track, the title track, opens with a synthesizer.  As other instruments, including an abundance of percussion, enter, you start to hear a lot of master compression, which is completely new territory for Marcell. The basic sounds are synth pop, but their texture betrays Marcell’s modus operandi; the same approach to music has been reapplied at a smaller scale. There are more repeating figures, and some of the tracks are based almost entirely around rhythms,  By listening carefully, you can hear that same bit of magic on her other recordings.

The familiar sounds of strings can be heard in several places on June, but their parts are more atmospheric than you might expect. The shift of focus in her songwriting applies here as well, with more attention being given to the sounds of instruments (lots of effects), though her terrific sense of melody still shines through. The new sound is heavy, visceral, and expressive, but in a way we haven’t heard from Marcell before. It is strongly marked with her unique musical identity,  but you must know where to look to find it.

The songwriting is inconsistent, but there are a few tracks I really like. One song, “Gamelan,” has very vibrant accompaniment with some interesting chord voicings rarely heard outside of jazz. “Since” is somewhat similar aesthetically to some of her older stuff–along with a brief instrumental, “Shores”–but is composed mostly in the new style and was the first track to jump out at me (a modulation she uses is similar to one in the third movement of my string quartet); “Echo” has some similar features. The final song, “Aye Aye,” is my favorite with horns (well utilized, I should add) and that same modulation in the bass. One feature of this album I’m quite pleased with is the addition of vocal harmonies.

I’ve been avoiding the subject of how I feel about June.  I like it and it’s well worth getting (if you don’t mind contacting international sources) but I have to judge it differently than I would other recordings. I mentioned that this is a transitional recording rather than an arrival, which is my way of describing something that more creative artists do at least once when they are, as the term implies, transitioning from one “sound” to another.  When taken outside the context of an artist’s discography, the easiest way to spot one is a lack of balance–balance being very important in music. Sometimes it’s subtle, like Houses of the Holy, and sometimes it’s obvious, like Workingman’s Dead, but there will always be something out of balance on a transition recording.

What’s out of balance here is that too much attention went to the small scale, the details, which forces the listener to do the same. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself, but there is no artistic statement here strong enough to warrant the forced change in perspective, which leads me back to the lack of balance. But that is not to say I don’t think this is a good album. As I said at the beginning, if it were a random pop album I had received, I would have liked it and given kudos to the artist. So even though I hold Marcell to a higher standard than other artists and this not as high quality as her previous work (though I by no means expected so creative an artist to repeat herself), given proper consideration, I give June my recommendation. Most important to remember, the magic is there.  And, if this is her Workingman’s Dead, I wait with bated breath to hear her American Beauty.

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