Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling
(Firehouse Records FH12-04-01-034. CD Review by Dan Bergsagel)
Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl is a project with defined constraints; a concept album, but not in the space prog-rock sense of ‘Gong’ or ‘Yes’ but in the sense that it was produced through a close methodological approach. Each song in Artlessly Falling is built around a pre-existing poetic form, with the rules and regulations of their rhymes and meters resulting in an album of fascinating rhythms and melodies, of tempos and time signatures.
The Lemon Trees is built on a double tanka, a pairing of two syllable-controlled haiku-esque pieces. It unfolds as a convoluted, changing score, unsettling in its delicate partnership between Halvorson’s plucked guitar, Robert Wyatt’s picked vocals, and wordless backing woops. Wyatt’s cracking faux innocence returns on
Bigger Flames, an almost indie approach which tweaks and bends over a tumbling rhythmic press, repeated refrain of pings and pushes of a ghazal presenting almost as early 2000 Four Tet ‘Hands’ era. Halvorson thanks Wyatt in the liner note ‘for making a dream come true’,
Muzzling Unwashed, the longest piece on the album, meanders through stanzas of intriguing, evocative streams of consciousness. It begins as an instrumental feeling nearly normal, but not quite. The flexible guitar tuning and computer game blips are prodded along by longtime collaborators Michael Formanek on bass and an enthusiastic Tomas Fujiwara on drums.
The title track is a challenging layer cake of stumbling distorted guitar and clear folk vocals, a Dirty Projectors-style combination. Artlessly Falling weaves complicated and changing musical backing through a sestina, swapping and repeating words in new formats, almost like an embroidery of a poem.
Unexpectedly one of the least formally constrained pieces, Last-Minute Smears, is perhaps one of the most effective. Based on a found poem pulled from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial and divisive congressional testimony during his confirmation process in 2018, Last-Minute Smears is a sparse, stretched, anguished collection of words and sentences he uttered in his self-defence, repeated with meaning by Amirtha Kidambi. The spacing and timing add emphasis to the unsettling nonsense from which the poem was assembled, and the sombre tone and fluctuating tempos make for an emotive piece, featuring a soft tenor solo from María Grand, and a fugal coming together with Adam O’Farrill on trumpet.
Creativity thrives under constraints – there are good reasons why the distilled form of the haiku continues to fascinate – and Artlessly Falling is a treat of an album: for its accomplished variation, but also for its feeling of depth. Halvorson points out that, like poetry, music like this benefits from more than one listen. I would add that on the second or third visit it benefits from being listened to along with the liner notes – a small book of the poetry on and about which the album is constructed.
Over the years Halvorson has cultivated a unique sound, which shines through with whomever she plays. But as Code Girl – in turn as composer, leader and part of the support cast playing her own poetry – it feels like Artlessly Falling might be an expression of her real sound, and not only of the shadows on the wall.
Artlessly Falling is released today, 30 October 2020