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Music Reviews: New albums from Charleston's Grace Joyner and Columbia's Greg Stuart

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Grace Joyner, Settle In

(self-released; available April 24; gracejoyner.bandcamp.com)

 

There’s always a danger in waiting too long between records. Artists can change, or become plagued with self-consciousness, self-doubt, or merely unsure of the musical path they’ve charted out. Alternatively, audiences are fickle creatures, prone to disappearing as tastes shift and the zeitgeist moves inexorably onward.

But at their best, such extended breaks allow for progression, new vision, for the space to fully realize their own possibility. Such seems to be the case for Grace Joyner’s Settle In, a sophomore LP that ably builds on the singer/songwriter’s prior work while demonstrating an added sonic breadth and, perhaps even more notably, a far sharper lyrical pen than her past work suggested.

Produced once again by Ryan “Wolfgang” Zimmerman and supported by a familiar cast of South Carolina musicians, there’s an obvious level-up in the sound and aesthetics here: The bass is punchier, the synth melodies a touch more anthemic, and the electronic beds underlying the tracks are more refined and lush. At times, it feels like a decaffeinated Passion Pit featuring Hope Sandoval, or Sharon Van Etten produced by Daft Punk — powerful pieces of alchemy that make the end results sound less like derivations and more like original gusto.

Still, it’s hard not to credit the Charlestonian’s songwriting for the true leap forward here. That’s not to say that the songs on 2016’s Sometimes Maybe in C or 2014’s Young Fools EP were bad by any stretch, but Joyner’s commitment to delving more deeply and vulnerably into the personal has wrought her finest collection to date. 

What’s surprising, perhaps, given the more personal nature, is that it’s as much wry humor and biting social critique as raw emotion that gives these songs such weight. Opener and lead single “Hung the Moon,” like several songs on the album, is a break-up tune that ends up being equal parts admission of guilt and incisive takedown, something which subsequent tracks “Everybody Loves You” and “Fake Girlfriend” do, as well. Elsewhere, her droll, expletive-laden “Love Is A” is a snarking bit of kiss-off that showcases a seldom-seen emotional range for the singer, who normally tends toward a more contemplative and wistful tone. 

On the second side of the album, Joyner turns her attention to more familial manners, even if never fully leaving her romantic travails. The affecting “Haze,” full of maternal warnings and hopeful warmth, is followed by “Million Dollar Wound,” a folky lament sweetened by the vocal presence of Joyner’s mother, Julie, whose Emmylou Harris/Nanci Griffith timbre blends easily with her daughter’s huskier delivery. “Brother,” a direct address that looks to a shared childhood to find contemporary emotional common ground, is similarly powerful. 

The record’s relative flirtations with a more alt-folk lean might even hint at a future direction for Joyner, something which closer “Half the Time” seems to make an implicit bid for. Initially built on a cacophonous, Wilco-esque bit of reverb-laden keys-and-percussion rumble, the track morphs halfway through into an acoustic folk reverie that leaves Joyner singing, “Take me down to the river,” like an indie kid who has either found salvation or, at the very least, a copy of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

As the song drifts away, a quietly bubbling bit of synths matching the guitar, one is left simply to bask in a new defining statement from one of South Carolina’s leading indie rock lights. KYLE PETERSEN


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Greg Stuart, Colluvium

(self-released; gregstuart.bandcamp.com)

The Wandelweiser collective takes its name from two German words: wandel, meaning “change,” and weiser, perhaps best translated as “sage” or “indicator.” The group comprises a handful of experimental composers the world over linked by an interest in gestural composition that does not adhere to conventional structure and tonality. Eva-Maria Houben, a Wandelweiser mainstay, hints at the group’s praxis: “Music may exist between: between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence.”

Greg Stuart, an associate professor of experimental music performance at the University of South Carolina, orbits on the outer rim of Wandelweiser’s gravitational mass: He’s produced a large body of music with Wandelweiser composer Michael Pisaro, and he’s recorded with and performed the music of the Swiss clarinetist Jüng Frey, one of Wandelweiser’s earliest members. Like many of the composer’s works, Stuart’s Colluvium exists in the liminal space between sound and silence. The magnification of small sounds highlights the communicative power of orchestrated gestures. Every whisper, scrape and pluck in between demands you to think about the point of that sound manifesting in that space for as long as it is around and as long as you think about it.

The 25-minute work is bound by time only nominally. From nothing, it arises: It starts in media res, layered percussive textures and timbres produced by indeterminate objects — falling grains of rice, maybe? — already abuzz, as though you’ve stumbled into a rain shower once on the horizon. Whispers and whistles evoke whipping winds. Scattered piano pitches — some at pleasingly consonant intervals, others abstrusely dissonant — peak through the static, pinging in from just outside the boundaries of perception, like beacons through a heavy fog. Or church bells, pealing in the distance, piercing the steady sibilation of a rainstorm. These tones don’t exist on the work’s back half; its sounds are wholly elemental, suggesting eaves overflowing with water, insects thrumming in the middle distance, stones and silt tumbling down hills and settling in uneven stacks. Then, to nothing it returns: It does not so much end as it disappears, evaporating as though passed by and no longer within earshot.

Ecologically speaking, colluvium is detritus, residue; it’s the buildup of coarse debris at the base of a slope, often deposited there by some flow of water. Studying the detritus yields clues about natural history — weather patterns, herd movement, glacial formation. Colluvium, in that way, suggests the sound of the earth resetting. Its layered elemental textures suggest long, slow, natural change, of the earth sloughing layers of settlement and reclaiming itself. It is the vegetal sound of alpha and omega, of what came before and what will survive long after. What’s left in the morass, piled and awaiting decay, are tiny reminders of what once was — of vast forms that arose and yielded, existing now in the liminal in-between. PATRICK WALL

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