Little Women - Lung
Already a band I've been following for some time, I'm delighted to review the newest epic from Brooklyn's Little Women. Two years in the making, "Lung" has just been released by Aum Fidelity, and this album-length composition is easily set to be my favorite record of 2013. "Lung" is an enormous step forward, compositionally and emotionally, by a band whose previous work already forged a totally unique sound, equal parts plaintive and powerful, in the grooves of the debut EP "Teeth" and followup LP "Throat."
I've long admired the Little Women sound for a kind of feral energy few bands can achieve, steeped in an Ayler-esque free blues but with the aggression of NYC hardcore and compositional and technical rigor rarely found outside of the classical world. This band can embody many genres, but we're a full generation beyond the collage/montage approaches of bands like Naked City. Little Women transcends imitation and cultural references--having long ago fused their influences into a new essential substance, their work is forceful and direct. And even at their harshest moments, the music is driven by a deep archetypal understanding of melody--indeed, the full and unflinching devotion to melody sometimes takes the music into a violent heliosphere. In a world of cynicism and emotional detachment, Little Women plays with a raw sincerity that makes the impossible become the inevitable.
"Lung" adds a new set of dynamics to the work of Little Women in the form of patience and silence. And it's a major change in the sound--as a composition, "Lung" demands a lot of patience and incorporates a tremendous amount of silence. The opening several minutes of the piece, for example, are almost completely without sound, as occasional brushes of percussion gradually open the space into music. The first introductory section of full-band playing that follows is the most gentle recorded offering from Little Women to date, melancholy and careful and respectful of the silence from which it was born.
The vocal section that evolves out of the introduction is a major revelation all its own. The whole band intones together, becoming one, preparing to act as a unit through the upheavals and calamities to come. Vocals made a brief appearance on the debut EP "Teeth," but they were deployed as more of a weapon there, distorted, with harsh, short articulations. The long tones here bring us all together as well, band and audience, recognizing the shared experience this music demands.
I'm not going to do a play-by-play of this whole disc, as this is a composition that simply must be heard to realize its full impact. But I want to return to Little Women's approach to silence and patience throughout the piece, as I think the emotional impact of silence shifts between two roles as "Lung" unfolds. In what roughly amounts to the first half of the album, silence is centering, imparting a rejuvenating effect that nurtures subsequent musical sections into being. In the second half, which starts just before the literal center of the piece, moments of silence are shorter, mostly stop-time holes in increasingly-punishing rhythmic passages, and they assume a role of "negative space" analogous to its use in painting or architecture, weightless pauses absolutely alive with the anticipation of oncoming mass.
This isn't a precise division into two, but to my ears the piece coalesces around these contrasting approaches of patient anticipation and aggressive release. The band reports that the piece evolved around "Shakespearean form," following elements of beauty toward tragic ends, and the record succeeds at manifesting these contrasts powerfully, both within smaller sections and looking at its timeline folded against itself. The extreme contrasts of "Lung" make its aggressive passages feel much more piercing than their previous work, which generally stayed frantic and violent for long stretches. "Lung" invites you all the way inside.
"Lung" is a really rich, complex piece, though, and repeated listenings will reveal many kinds of narrative forms. The liner notes suggest a division into four rough sections, mirroring the passage of seasons, and the band further reports that the primary themes of this record "exist simultaneously inside every sound, every phrase, every section, and the entire piece." With such a powerful, resonant recording, finding your own ways to relate to this music is part of the process.
While it's fair to say that the dual (and sometimes duel) saxophone attack of Darius Jones and Travis LaPlante constitutes the dominant voice of Little Women, "Lung" provides more space to showcase the work of Andrew Smiley on guitar and Jason Nazary on drums than previous albums. The introductory cymbal work, for example, sets the tone for the whole first "inhalation" of the piece. And while Smiley leaves most of the melodic territory of this music to the saxes, his multifaceted approach to guitar quietly holds this piece together. With strategic chord work, weird textural approaches, and stabbing brutal riffs, mostly played through a clean sound that just begins to break up on hard attacks, guitars fill all of the right places in this music. You know you're doing a few things right when there are never any moments when you wish a bass player was sitting in with the band.
Like the previous Little Women releases, "Teeth" features freaky cover art from guitarist Mick Barr, whose instantly recognizable drawing style adds a lot of continuity to the Little Women oeuvre. And speaking of Barr, Aum Fidelity's decision to skip releasing this album on vinyl reminded me of my purchase of Orthrelm's "Ov" LP years ago. Right in the middle of that dense, relentless piece, there's a quick fade, and you have to flip the record, clean, cue, and jump in again. I love vinyl, but I always wished I'd opted for the CD version of that album--you have to stay in the zone, no distractions, to fully vibe on it. "Lung" is very much the same, demanding uninterrupted attention, and I think Aum Fidelity made the right decision sticking to CD (but still go back and pick up the previous album "Throat" on vinyl if you haven't). This is a beautifully recorded album, too, captured live in one take, and it's perfectly mixed and mastered, retaining a wider dynamic range than most orchestral albums.
It's a seriously heavy experience--do yourself a favor and spend some time with "Lung." Few bands even try to write something this musically and emotionally ambitious, and even fewer succeed. But I think fans of creative music from a wide variety of camps, metal to jazz to classical, will find this record to be a deeply moving experience.