Ashley Paul - Line The Clouds (REL Records)

Ashley Paul – Line The Clouds (REL Records)

Pop and avant-garde have always had a sometimes uneasy, often tumultuous love affair. The Beatles famously started incorporating avant-garde techniques in their music on Revolver, culminating in the masterpiece that was Sgt. Pepper. The Velvet Underground achieved possibly the most perfect marriage of pop and avant-garde, in the process acting as incubator for just about every type of indie music that came after. In the 80s members of Glenn Branca‘s experimental guitar orchestra formed Sonic Youth and started the whole New York school of noise rock. Tom Waits‘ fascination with Harry Partch and John Cage is well known.

Brooklyn artist Ashley Paul seems determined to add another page to this narrative. Part of the Brooklyn avant-garde scene, Ashley plays saxophone and clarinet with Anthony Coleman as a duo and as part of his Damaged Quartet. With longtime musical partner Eli Keszler, she also performs as Aster, with Sakiko Mori as Paul & Maurey and with Geoff Mullen and Keszler as Oxtirn.

On her newest release, Ashley Paul’s sonic palette consists mostly of prepared guitar and multi-layered vocals, with occasional ghostly clarinet and flute sounds flowing in and out. At first listen the twelve songs kind of come off as variations on a theme, but a closer listen reveals many subtleties and rich sonorities.

Ashley Paul’s songs can be called ‘songs’ in the conventional sense. Melody and lyrics float over a tapestry of sparse guitar figures, with ambient drones and random sounds filling out the whole. The result is a kind of music where time stands still, shimmering in the air like static noise. Ashley Paul’s music invokes both the industrial wastelands of Brooklyn and a zen-like stillness, with echoes of Sonic Youth, Fred Frith, John Zorn and even Philip Glass‘ serial minimalism.

Opener title track ‘Soak the Ocean’ has a lullaby quality with a childlike melody over what sounds like toy piano as various ominous droning sounds weave in and out.

‘Wide Expanses’ reminds one of a walk through an abandoned industrial park.

‘Line The Clouds’ is the most melodic in the traditional sense, uneasily vacillating between tonality and dissonance.

‘Black and Blue’ crawls along cinematically on scraped strings and wavering reed tones, culminating in one long sustained note.

‘Feb 21’ is possibly the most purely experimental, sounding like the kind of sonic chaos the Knitting Factory used to be famous for.

‘Sail’ has a definite Tom Waits vibe and would not have been out of place on Rain Dogs or Frank’s Wild Years.

‘Never Take’sounds like a drunken jazz improvisation on piano and sax, further strengthening the Tom Waits comparisons.

The final song ‘You’re a Feeling’ features a delicately harmonized melody over a Fred Frith-like guitar pattern and what sounds like a melodica. A musical haiku and definite proof of Ashley Paul’s love and respect for the ancient art of melody.

Ashley Paul’s musical marriage between melody and noise can occasionally sound a little contrived and overthought, but her courageous attempts to add another page to the saga of pop/avant garde hybrid deserve our full attention. The adventure continues…


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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.