The last few years have seen an extraordinary amount of growth for singer-songwriter Haley Fohr, known by her nom de plume Circuit Des Yeux. She relocated from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago in 2011 and has worked as an audio engineer in addition to fine-tuning her compositional landscape. The Circuit Des Yeux moniker has always signified a dark, homespun, and somewhat harsh approach to psychedelic music, Fohr’s soaring alto, piano and tin-can guitar swathed in electronic hum, reverb, and jabs of white-hot noise. Yet across three De Stijl LPs and a pair of seven-inch singles, her music gradually became more majestic. Not only was this a sign of conceptual refinement, but of the young Fohr growing into her art. All of this work was constructed solo, though in 2011 she began working with a short-lived trio called CDY3 (which released an EP on Magnetic South earlier this year), which was an opportunity to hear her music in an expansive light. Even in that context, it was really all about Fohr’s approach as a performer — forthright excavations supported by punkish clamor.
While Fohr seems to work best “alone in the studio” (to reference her recent touring partner Bill Callahan), her latest LP Overdue (self-released on vinyl and issued via Ba Da Bing! on CD) is in part a collaborative effort with Cave’s Cooper Crain, who engineered the record in addition to contributing additional synthesizers and percussion. Across eight pieces, Fohr and Crain are joined by the drums of Dan Quinlivan, John Dawson, and Tyler Damon, and guitarists Joe Wetteroth and Greg Simpson, making this record massive when it needs to be. Other Chicago names brought into play are Rob Sevier (additional lyrics on “Acarina”) and University of Chicago-schooled composer Estlin Usher (string arrangements on “Lithonia”).
The fact that the album starts off with a piece for string quartet and piano signals a significant change in the CDY arc; “Lithonia” had been a tense and squalling tune in its CDY3 incarnation, but Fohr’s voice is supple and wheeling, set against Usher’s glorious and meaty string introduction. When the chorus appears as a paisley anthem undercut by thin and jittery guitar and Fohr belts out “Doesn’t it feel grand/ To have that lottery ticket in your hand/ And to have a second chance,” her earnestness is powerful and believably simple. That’s not to say that she doesn’t allow the murk to raise its head on occasion — “Hegira” is a wintery loner-folk rejoinder, staring into brackish liquid with sallying sleaze amid canned, Smog-like synth orchestration. The stark, minimal waves of crash, toms, and fuzzed-out guitar propel the following “Nova 88” into a backwater of sizable proportions, Fohr’s Kendra Smith-like cry scratching its way out of electrified fabric.
Following the surreal cackle and terse lope of the darkly trippy “Acarina” (sic, taking its name from the transverse/vessel flute heard in musics of the far east and South America) that closes the first side, the flip opens with the driving, interwoven guitars of “Bud & Gin,” wordless distant wails and a grungy march among the few things differentiating it from a Davy Graham throwback, closing with pensive tape manipulations and synth washes. Throaty vibrato and muscular, deliberate diction mark “My Name Is Rune,” Fohr’s operatic voice in heavy contrast with the more enclosed acid-folk textures that back her up in an incredibly deep and unsettlingly insistent performance. There are still vestiges of earlier music in a sense, but they are refined — the Confusion is Sex ritual of the closing “Some Day” is as yelping and noisy as anything Fohr has done, maximizing dirty-needle distortion and guttural dog barks, but crisply recorded and with symphonic mass, it carries much more weight and perhaps even more value.
Overdue is an appropriate title for a number of reasons; it’s been a few years since she recorded a solo album, but what it may indicate more is that this is the record we thought she had in her, but had yet to deliver. That’s not a slight against her earlier work, which was captivating insofar as it marked steps on the way somewhere while generating a serious vibe. Live, she’s always been a force to be reckoned with, but that was rarely captured on disc. Now there is a record that rivals her in-the-flesh power but has its own distinct being, and is as nuanced, personal, and unbridled as one could hope for. Masterpiece is a word perhaps overused and unfairly canonizing, but Overdue will surely hold itself up alongside such lasting works as Farewell Aldebaran (Henske-Yester), Happy Nightmare Baby (Opal), and Julius Caesar (Smog). Haley Fohr has created a truly extraordinary work, giving primal urgency and bare expressionism a decidedly structured sensibility without losing any of its force.