Lean Year is Richmond, Virginia based singer Emilie Rex and filmmaker/musician Rick Alverson. When filmmakers and songwriters collaborate it usually leads to well-meant but unrealised guff like David Lynch’s The Big Dream or tantalising glimmers of brilliance like Teesside’s frustratingly work-shy Dead Rivers. The PR bumf from Lean Year contains some serious name-dropping; the likes of Karen Dalton, and Fred Neil and tenuously marries them to Harold Budd, Brian Eno, and John Cale before despatching them off on honeymoon with some heavyweight childhood influences, respectively, New-Age ideology and antiquated Catholic Catechism; the upheaval of divorce and the qualities of life-long marriage which “provide footing on uneven ground for the record’s dream-like, oblique observations. In the wake of these dynamic histories, the two leaned on music as a kind of secular spirituality”. Whatevs guys.
Onwards, the album often employs visual art as touchstones for its narrative content from Duchamp’s The Large Glass in ‘Her Body in the Sky’, the photographs of Gregory Crewdson on the otherwise largely forgettable ‘Earner’; the films of Elem Klimov in ‘Come & See’ and Alejandro Jodorowsky on ‘Holy Mountain’. It adds a further unnecessary complexity to a record built on a sparse loneliness and for the most part really something to drink in and absorb. Truthfully, opener ‘Come & See’ lands somewhere between the folky catchiness of Cattle & Cane and the pitch-black Americana of DBUK, a delicate but accomplished balance while ‘Her Body in the Sky’ is ethereal and trippy with a well-placed oboe, the instrumentation supposedly colouring the foggy, intimacy of the record but, throughout, adds some interesting twists and turns to the underlying gothic bleakness of a beautifully crafted record.
And the sparser it gets the more incredible this self-titled debut sounds. ‘Holy Mountain’’s orchestration, percussive style and oddly Blue Note jazzy vibe sounds like musical bubble and squeak but Rex’s delicate vocals are often set only to light Rhodes piano and finished with a sultry echoplex effect, with everything else seemingly fading in and out on musical whims. ‘Waterloo Suns’ incorporates drone along with a crackling traditional style folk vocal. On first listen I wrote just one word ‘wow’. Some other words I wrote during the near perfect 35 minutes of this record, as if annotating polygraph paper, were brooding, gorgeous and haunting. Then there is ‘Sonja Henie’, a hazy retelling of the ice skating, silent-era movie star’s death on an aeroplane between continents. It’s intense and ambitious but perfectly realised, the plaintive organ and that echo again. It’s Alverson at his most cinematic aiding the despondent narrative as somehow the organ is now a piano and strings sweep in, to say it’s like Portishead without the beats doesn’t begin to do it justice.
Instrumental closer, ‘Nines’, acts as an epitaph of sorts, as if carefully twining brown paper around an old diary, as each new track is a small, knowing departure from the last, a gradation in identity and form. Like kisses from a ghost. Stunning.
Lean Year is released on 20th October through Western Vinyl.