Review: Less Bells – “Mourning Jewelry”

There is a visible, conscious process of decision-making, maybe even a brand of self-reflection, behind the constructions on Mourning Jewelry, the sophomore outing by post-classical artist Julie Carpenter, aka Kranky Records act Less Bells. Take “Fiery Wings”, the LP’s second track. Here, Carpenter unfurls pitch-perfect swarms of cello, occasional punctuation marks from breathy laments, and a resolute synth framework overflowing with Baroque flair. But she buries that framework – a refrain of measures on piano-like synthesizers – below layers of seemingly incidental sound, adding a notion of mystery.

By the close, yes, portions of the measures have crept closer to the surface, but Carpenter’s instinct is to obfuscate what might be the song’s most gripping element. It’s a riveting little passage, and it makes the recognition of those signifiers, oddly enough, all the richer in context. Whether it is Carpenter’s mission or not, it becomes obvious through constructions like this that similar things about recognition and consciousness could be said of mourning and the accessories referenced in the record’s all-too-appropriate title.

Carpenter seems to relish toying with expectations of what does and does not declare itself a starring element, with the stress on twinkling stars, in her work. In the excellent “Queen of Crickets”, she again takes a driving detail – in this case, the almost bassy thrum of a humming keyboard – and lays it behind, not in front of, nuanced layers of synthetic textures. It’s an interesting trick because, even though the bass notes, at times, indicate the passage between various bridges or song-modes, the synthetic textures become scene-stealing ephemera on their own. By the close, you realize you’ve been listening to a kind of a celestial drone, with the requisite structure that holds the piece together hidden deep below. Carpenter uses this device on more than a couple of occasions. She pulls a similar tete-a-tete on “Plait”, though conversation here is so ethereal it nearly floats off the surface of the LP.

Not every corner or detail revolves around such intuitiveness. Album-opener “Brooch” is a tad mis-sequenced and, at nearly nine minutes, runs a little longer than necessary, taking a while to generate heat and even a little longer to make its statements known. Carpenter tries to save the track from senseless amorphism with the same punctuating coos that she weaves into the LP elsewhere, but here they feel colder, somewhat empty and hovering over a bit of a void.

Much of the record, though, is quite good. Those who loved Less Bells’ debut, 2018’s Solifuge, will find treasures here in tracks like “The Fault”, where Carpenter’s wordless singing places her closer to modes of traditional Romanticism. The expressive string work on this track might be the most mournful detail to the entire record. Closer “The Fang”, at first glance, feels a little lost, offering a wandering cadence. But the introduction of loosely plucked strings (the instrument is unclear) acts as a segue to bridges where Carpenter’s synth work again steals the show. In the closing minute, the strings and synth begin to march as one in syncopation, and it lends closure to the proceedings, a sense of coming to terms with grief – which, again, does the text justice.

The record, tonally, is rather light and airy given the source material, but here, again, Carpenter seems to cast knowing glances. Her breathy compositions do exude a sense of sadness, even moments of repose, but they do so in inventive, well-thought-out ways. Mourning Jewelry is not light music in the sense of weight, but it might be light in the sense of brightness or contrast. In this respect and others, Carpenter offers an engaging little series of tropes about loss and processes of grieving. — Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, Aug. 17, 2020

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