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Lucrecia Dalt - Commotus

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Artist: Lucrecia Dalt

Album: Commotus

Label: Human Ear

Review date: Mar. 13, 2013

Commotus seems broken and faltering on first listen, creeping its way through a nocturnal landscape. By the end, a complete picture is drawn, showing Lucrecia Dalt to be a considerable artist. These tracks hover on the edge of songdom. Faint vocals sometimes corral the murk, then slip down between the throbs and disappear altogether. The murkiness isn’t an issue of recording quality. Bass guitar is her primary instrument, and many of the sounds that aren’t percussion are coaxed from it. Bass is her frame of reference. She tweaks with effects, and pushes those thick strings beyond their natural range, getting treble colors. But the heaviness inherent in the instrument defines the overall mood.

Her 2011 debut, Congost, was less diffident about creating verse/chorus songs. It showed a knack for melody that’s she’s abandoned here in favor of more brittle structures. Turns out she’s better suited to experimentation. On "Waste of Shame,” while whispering over a two-note slide, her mouth is close enough to a mic that it distorts beyond recognizable English or Spanish (on more legible tracks, she’ll use both). It’s like the escalating introduction to a bigger song, but cuts off cold at exactly one minute. Other tracks are truncated, too, most notably the long final number, “Batholith,” which comes to a halt for a while, like a section was expunged.

She sticks to gradual, dubbish tempos, and as Commotus meanders, it tours past familiar motifs without settling into a defined style. Those naked bass riffs inevitably recall cold wave, if just for making memories out of low end. More distant references sometimes seem filtered through the nineties -- the dusty Moogs of Stereolab and Portishead, and evil lounges of the Bad Seeds and Twin Peaks are touchstones, insofar as those artists were already reworking older oddities. "Turmoil” has a sweep of spy guitar and lamenting vocals that recall both Nick Cave and Beth Gibbons. It’s the one track with a clear refrain: "I’ve been doing deals with the devil.” Lyrics like that might be an opportunity to go over the top, but Dalt lets a simple tom-tom roll control the song, and it scales down the brooding. When the guitars sweep, it evokes an old 45, but when it’s just the drums and vocals, it creaks like a 78 with a distant Latin feel.

While there’s lot of looping and processing at work here, Dalt doesn’t use these tools to create alien landscapes or airtight rooms. Commutus is a record that breathes. Techniques like a pick scraping down a round-wound string, or electronics that blur human whistles could merely have been sound effects, but end up filling the gaps left by absent melodies. Playing out in the foreground, they prevent the sparse proceedings from ever falling into a lull. Likewise, "Mahán" is hardly anything but bass crunch, locked in a single key and beat, yet moves forward thanks to sounds at the periphery -- whirring noises and muffled vocals -- until it becomes a pure knot of tension. The more time you spend with Commotus, the more it reveals. Like stepping out at 2 a.m., your senses need to adjust.

By Ben Donnelly

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