[Sacred Bones; 2019]

Styles: R&B, techno, experimental
Others: Kate Bush, Brian Eno, FKA twigs, David Lynch

At the beginning of the second verse of “Hard to Please (Reprise),” a sultry psych-R&B number from SPELLLING’s latest album Mazy Fly, the Bay Area experimentalist softly croons, “I just wanna spend time with you/ I just wanna make love with you.” Here, SPELLLING (born Tia Cabral) sounds as self-assuredly sexy as Britney Spears and twice as commanding, her voice giving purpose to the retro keyboards and guitars that underpin her sweet nothings. At the center of those carefully curated instrumentals that shimmer with campy throwback and vintage cool, Cabral’s voice taps into an effortless seductiveness. Singing with little more than a whisper, her airy vocals are so engrossing it sounds as if she herself could fall prey to that bedroom invitation.

“Hard to Please (Reprise),” like so much of Mazy Fly, threads together a host of disparate influences into a single glossy sound. There’s the kitschy otherworldliness of kosmische, the earnest murkiness of lo-fi, and the tantalizing dreaminess of alternative R&B. While some artists boast their eclectic tastes by cheaply parading individual styles and genres in a slapdash, sometimes rote, song-by-song manner, Cabral searches for deeper connections among her myriad influences. The outré guitar tones she frequently opts for serve as a point of convergence between her R&B leanings and the experimental rock groups she clearly admires. The same is true of the four-on-the-floor beats that bridge the gap between the post-disco swagger of “Under the Sun” and the brief foray into deep house on the first iteration of “Hard to Please.”

After the sprawling, ethereal drift of Cabral’s debut Pantheon of Me, Mazy Fly feels far more focused, or at least direct. Sure, the album has its share of nebulous sounds (listen to the meandering opening of “Afterlife” or the ambiance of “Melted Wings”), but those moments of uncertainty and openness are used as a foil to the highly rhythmic, dance-oriented bent of the rest of the album. The quasi-ambient excursions then become a thick miasma for Cabral to trudge through and eventually triumph over.

Named after the imagined possibility of her pet border collie taking flight, Mazy Fly plays with the idea of the limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, of living creatures. This is most apparent on “Real Fun,” in which she adopts the perspective of two “aliens looking for real fun” in the form of a stellar elopement. Looking to transcend the earthly realm with a spacecraft full of Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson tapes, SPELLLING once again makes a compelling case to abscond with her. But there’s also an understated wistfulness to her performance: she’s frustrated at the impossibility of the scenario. This frustration turns to outright apoplexy by the song’s apocalyptic outro, with its sci-fi epic synths and planet-shattering drums. Despite the flying dog daydream that inspired the record, Cabral often underlines the more fantastical elements of her work with a deep sense of melancholy.

The grudgingly terrestrial SPELLLING often sounds as if she’s making the best out of an unfortunate situation, searching for romance in the broadest possible terms as she’s confronted time and again with the physical and mental boundaries of her being. Cabral has commented on the more demoralizing aspects of working as a POC experimental artist, describing the dynamic between herself and the audience as highly uneven. “I found myself thrown in front of a bunch of poker-faced white people who expect, expect, expect without giving anything in return,” she lamented to Bandcamp in 2017. The autobiographical interpretation of her work, then, becomes tempting: Cabral feels like an outsider, bumping up against the mures of a predominantly white, fastidious music scene. This same alienation is there on the cover of Mazy Fly. Amid the (at best) passingly curious cattle, Cabral lies in the middle of their barn, her overexposed wedding dress projecting an uneasy aura around her body. Down but not out, she reaches for her hat, casting an inscrutable leer at us. We’re now in her domain.

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