Stars and Dust, the new album by Songs of Water (out in June), is not easy listening — which is not to say it’s un easy listening. But these 10 tracks demand attention, from the first staccato notes (hammered dulcimer, I think) of “11 Miles.”
The album is a journey, transportive and transformative. Its songs breathe and leap, they evoke hope and profess a sense of waking into life — into the beauty, tragedy and mystery of it all. “11 Miles” builds in washes of melody, surges of percussion and a chorus of voices. “What I thought was just a moment became 500 years,” sings songwriter Stephen Roach. And though the band was Roach’s inspiration, Stars and Dust is “the result of intense collaboration by Elisa Rose Cox, Michael Pritchard, Greg Willette, Jon Kliegle, Luke Skaggs (son of bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs) and Roach (cousin to the flat-picking guitar great Tony Rice),” according to a press release.
The album took three years to complete, and the work is evident in tracks like “Evergreen.” Lush instrumentation and heartfelt lyrics create a kind of intensity and compressed intimacy while breaks of near quiet — a tightly-bowed fiddle or cello, a resonant dulcimer — allow for white space before the next pummeling wave of melody. The song is lovely without being concerned with loveliness. It abandons preciousness for dissonant sounds and unusual treatments of instruments, allowing those less-pretty textures to share real estate with the rounded notes and dulcet tones.
The heart leaps at “Golden Summer,” a track the captures the feeling of endless days and buttery light. (“I will set the table and pour the tea / together we will laugh at the notion of impossibility,” Roach sings.) The beat drives the song, but this isn’t the expected drum kit. Shakers, bells, claps, boney chatters and booming thumps propel the song behind the tender lyric.
The album’s title track is a shift of mood. Slower and bittersweet, it’s more searching than melancholy. Still, the rich strings — a viola, maybe — are poignant and the artfully placed harmony vocals lend a dark shimmer. It ends with this: “I feel the earth beneath my feet / and the stars they seem so far away / Still I wait for the breath of God.” Themes of environmental destruction, disconnect from nature and human loneliness seem as prevalent here as religion.
“She’s Only Sleeping” flows directly from the final notes of “Stars and Dust,” but quickly establishes its own nocturnal mood. As an instrumental track, it allows the musicians to create sonic palettes with a full range of textures. Songs of Water is known for seeking out and incorporating exotic instruments — this is a song that would surely be fun to watch live for the array of instruments onstage.
The galloping and uplifting “Reverie” has hints of Afrobeat. Charming and warm, it’s a perfect illustration of its dreamy name. That track is the album’s shortest; it’s followed by the temperamental “Ashe” — at over six minutes, the longest offering of the collection. That song, spooky and jittery, recalls the spirit of experimentation of Violent Femmes, circa Hallowed Ground. So, Milwaukee post-punk meets the snaky, shimmying sounds of Free Planet Radio meets the devotional mysticism of The Sabri Brothers.
“Just ask the birds, you don’t need words to understand,” Roach sings in the delicate “Strangely Beautiful.” Soft and close, the song feels like a complete world — a music box captured in a snow globe. That’s part of the magic of Songs of Water: The ability to inhabit both the microcosm and the macrocosm and to move seamlessly between the two. Here, ethereal strings and gentle hand drums swoop and pulse, suspended in space.
Though the track “Ghost” doesn’t feel particularly haunted, it is infused with gauzy notes that drift across chattery beats and vibrant keys. There’s something so solid about the instantly recognizable sound of a piano in a field of lesser-known instrument voices.
Stars and Dust ends with “Chiaroscuro,” the title an a term in visual art for strongly contrasting darks and lights. To think of the song, a swooning and prancing instrumental, in those terms evokes a sort of synesthesia. Where are the darks and lights in the music? In the mood, the play of heavy and soft intensities? Or in loud vs. soft or fast vs. slow? The high, trilling voice of the dulcimer or the metallic luster of the cymbals? Or is it enough that all of those experiences can be felt in the course of a five minute composition? Ultimately, not only has Songs of Water crafted a thoughtful album with a hero’s journey as its arc, the band has presented a moving multisensory collection.