Circuit des Yeux Reaching for Indigo

[Drag City; 2017]

Styles: free
Others: Jessica Pratt, Karen Dalton, Meredith Monk, Heavens to Betsy

“The world wants an oath
but all you can say is
a promise to take up space
I can only promise to take up space”

– “Brainshift”

I‘m unqualified to write about Reaching for Indigo, Haley Fohr’s new album as Circuit des Yeux. Even the trivial task of splitting up the lines above, from the brilliant opener, felt difficult. Because, on the album, Fohr’s phrases unfold fluidly over dense instrumental arrangements, so as to make my own medium, with its arbitrary divisions, seem paltry and dim. (Others feel similarly.) But this music should be written about.

I’ll start with the end. The album closes with “Falling Blonde,” a song about the spectacle of power. Fohr’s agile, operatic vocals tell a story — set to somber synth pop, beat-less yet still beating — about tenability: what can be known, held, and promised in a world in which the only sustainable position seems to be one above another. Thus: the peculiar sadness that saturates the song’s tenderly conjured images of a young blonde who has fallen down in the road, like an allegory for wasted potential. The street lights are changing to green, the crowd is gathering, and they feel the blonde’s dream fading. But the blonde is deaf to their warnings. The sun gets in their eyes, and suddenly, their world is turned upside down: “Hands were in the ground/ Feet were in the sky.” After the fall, Fohr’s poetic delivery morphs from enunciation to vocables that shiver empathetically.

The intensity of the moment made my cheap earbuds crackle, overdriven, the sensation of which made me cry, overwhelmed. Or was I moved by the story, this little drama? If expanded, it could be its own opera. But its message is unclear: are we, the listeners, meant to identify with the fallen blonde or with the crowd that did so little while looking on?

Each song of eight on the album develops its own world of feeling, each in a different mode and with a unique musical setting. As Giovanni Russonello wrote, some are “like laments for lost connections, others like solitary exorcisms.” Taken as a whole, the album feels like a warm, melancholy memory I have of sitting around a stereo one autumn in Indiana. A random series of characters filtered through the room, each offering up a selection to the queue: warped tapes, documents of faded trips, noise records, delicate epiphanies carved into time. In other words, the influences here are many, but they all embrace each other.

The album vacillates between these influences and Fohr’s whole incendiary catalog, from the drifting simplicity of Portrait through to her 2016 alter-ego album by cowgirl Jackie Lynn. “Philo” is overtly minimalist, resembling Terry Riley or La Monte Young piano works, whereas “A Story Of This World Part II” (referring back to Part I, on Fohr’s 2015 album In Plain Speech) is pure post-punk, a jam with a propulsion that makes it feel longer than it is. “Black Fly” is similarly referential, recalling a particular strain of avant-folk, something like the urgency of Joni’s Hissing of Summer Lawns mellowed by the spiderweb guitar beds of Elliott Smith. “Paper Bag” is the sound of lights flickering, things bursting in and out of focus, the sun split up by the shapes of leaves, a small sound lab that demonstrates what the voice can do. And “Geyser,” a love song, is the most distinctive of the set, replete with tiny pitch swells and microbends in the accompaniment parts, which seem to represent the dream cycles Fohr sings about.

Only this music can match life’s mutability. “It all feels the same,” Fohr sings, so dynamically, of days on “Brainshift.” This incision into what she says by how she says it is what makes this music necessary. In 1963, Amiri Baraka wrote, in reference to John Coltrane’s vitality on the album Live at Birdland, “His music is one reason why suicide seems so boring.” When I listen to Reaching for Indigo, I think to myself, so this is what he means. He means we have been given a reason to stick around. “If it is a master we are listening to, we are very likely to be moved beyond the pettiness and stupidity of our beautiful enemies,” Baraka had written, that last word referring, at least a little bit, to himself.

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