A Poignant, Lyrically Potent, Darkly Lush Art-Rock Masterpiece from Joanna Wallfisch

by delarue

What if you could re-record seven of your songs with a fantastic string quartet? Wouldn’t you spend every waking moment feverishly writing new charts? That might well be what multi-instrumentalist art-rock songwriter Joanna Wallfisch did for her brilliant new album, Gardens in My Mind, streaming at Bandcamp. In addition to those seven cuts off her previous album, The Origin of Adjustable Things, she’s included an equal number of new songs, totaling a very generous fourteen tracks filled with vivid and often haunting imagery, double entendres, clever wordplay and a poignantly melancholy sensibility. She’ll be airing them out at the album release show on July 31 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25

As on the previous record, Wallfisch plays piano and ukulele, joined by Dan Tepfer on piano (and melodica, very memorably, on one track) along with the Sacconi Quartet: violist Robin Ashwell, cellist Pierre Doumenge, and violinists Ben Hancox and Hannah Dawson. Wallfisch opens the album with the distantly creepy, twinkling art-rock lament Moons of Jupiter, awash in gusts and ripples that border on the macabre. “Even through the fall of Troy the stars were shining, but you had to walk away,” Wallfisch intones. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Universal Thump catalog. Likewise, Wallfisch goes deep into the underlying angst in the album’s first cover, Joni Mitchell’s All I Want, reinvented as a brooding ballad for strings and voice.

The album’s title track manages to be both jauntily vaudevillian and cruelly hilarious, evoking Honor Finnegan in a darkly theatrical moment: the UK-born Wallfisch’s depiction of the New York City subway is priceless. Apprehensively creaky string harmonics open Satellite, a return to morosely starlit art-rock with a tinge of wee-hours saloon blues. The lillting melody of the requiem Distant Shores almost but not quite masks Wallfisch’s gently shattering, pain-wrenched narrative, “The tears much clearer than the blur of mine.”

As she does with many of the songs here, Wallfisch’s piano takes brief, gentle yet almost heart-stopping detours toward outright menace in another elegaic ballad, Anonymous Journeys. After the mostly-instrumental Patience, a cavatina for strings, she keeps the waltzing rainy-day atmosphere going throughout Satin Grey and its understated portrait of the consequence of a missed connection, recalling an Edith Piaf number.

This Is How You Make Me Feel, with its echo phrases and shifting rhythms, blends disquieting indie classical and jazz, a portrait of a relationship with highs to match the lows. The second of the cover tunes, Tim Buckley’s Song to a Siren gets Wallfisch’s most tender vocal here. Wallfisch has a thing for paradoxes, and Rational Thought gives her a platform for a whole slew of clever ones: “Statistics never took into account who to count on,” she reminds. The carousel theme Brighton Beach is full of musical surprises and far more sheer horror than the previously recorded version. The album winds up with a brief reprise of All I Want. Counting Wallfisch’s originals alone, this is one of the half-dozen best releases of 2016.

Fun fact: Wallfisch is third cousin to Paul Wallfisch, the iconic noir pianist and Botanica bandleader.