Winter Family Winter Family

[Sub Rosa; 2007]

Styles: theatrical/doom-folk, spoken word
Others: Loren Connors, Carla Bozulich, Current 93, Bonny Prince Billy

Winter Family is a duo made up of vocalist Israeli Ruth Rosenthal and French musician Xavier Klaine, who mans the piano, organ, and harmonium. Together, they build up relatively simple pieces with all the height and gloom of rotting cathedrals. Rosenthal speaks in English and Hebrew. Klaine takes advantage of the organ’s versatility, while Rosenthal swaps languages between verses; with these clever change-ups, they reap a diverse crop of ideas from some pretty simple germs. Each song seems written on a different template (the shortest is less than two minutes, the longest over thirteen), yet almost all of them convey some aspect of horror and the agony of remembering. In short, this is some scary shit.

On “Nous Les Vivants” the organ dominates, blasting upward with tyrannical abandon. It’s almost five straight minutes of climax that confronts the listener with the listening experience normally expected from a noise CD-R. Hot on its heels is a winsome piano piece reminiscent of Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks – the only English lyric sung over the tinkling chords: “You wish to wash yourself but you can’t.” The clean, loving tones of the piano that appear later are not enough to cleanse the listener of the prior fury of Klaine’s organ.

“Psaume” (the French word for “psalm”) consists of suffocating, twitchy organ static and layered, reverbed vocals. It’s wonderful. “Ray of Light / No Bad Animals” takes the same concept but flips it on its head: it’s a handful of piano notes and a few chords scattered over Rosenthal’s fable about warring animals. This time the words smother and lacerate while the music floats, until the end of the song, when they both stumble over each other through a crescendo.

“Auschwitz” is a barrelhouse piano number about its titular subject. Yes, a number; yes barrelhouse. The song’s irony is terrifying. It’s narrated by a little girl who tells the story of a snow globe full of people who are dying because they forgot to bring their coats with them to a cold place (guess which). Rosenthal keeps up a twee, happy-go-lucky tone throughout, while the piece bounces on top of a rollicking piano line and the occasional twang of... a Jew’s harp.

This is decidedly a winter album. I first listened to it this summer when it was hot and I was pretty terribly in love. I thought it was kinda okay. Now I’m lonely, it’s fucking cold out, and it sounds revelatory. Sub Rosa gives its artists all the space they want to exercise a concept; this can lead to albums that feel a little overstuffed or indulgent, but in the case of Winter Family, it has yielded two discs full of beautiful music. This one should make more year-end lists than it will.

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