Cellist Mia Pixley Puts Out a Thoughtful, Playful, Deceptively Deep Album of Soul Songs and Chamber Pop
Before she went solo, Mia Pixley was the cellist in the Debutante Hour, an all-female trio who charmed and needled New York audiences with their quirky, deceptively biting chamber pop throughout the late zeros and early teens. Since then, the individual members have done plenty of work on their own – Maria Sonevytsky in the worlds of Balkan and Ukrainian music, and Susan Hwang with the noir-tinged , cinematic Lusterlit and the erratically brilliant lit-pop collective the Bushwick Book Club.
On her new album Margaret in the Wild – streaming at Bandcamp – Pixley glides elegantly through undulating soul grooves and the occasional minimalist classical theme or chamber pop interlude. She plays bass and guitar voicings on the cello along with classical and blues phrasing, and her vocals have more depth and expressiveness than ever. Her supporting cast is first-rate: Ruth Davies and Kevin Goldberg sharing bass duties, Javier Santiago and Bryan Simmons each on piano, Luis Salcedo on guitar, Nahuel Bronzini contributing slide guitar and Wurlitzer, Barbara Higbie on mandolin, Aaron Kruziki on organ, Michaelle Goerlitz and Amelie Hinman on percussion, Isaac Schwartz on drums and Maryam Qudus on keyboards. This is one of those rare albums that sounds like nothing else that’s been released this year. Whatever you call this music – soul, cello rock, something that hasn’t been categorized yet – Pixley owns it.
She opens the record with Core, a terse but lushly orchestrated, nocturnally sweeping overture, the cello balanced by gentle, twinkly piano. In the Daylight, a lustrous, summery tableau, has Pixley’s lithe cello multitracks rising over a vamping lullaby. She follows with Good Taste, a slinky, catchy, soul and hip-hop-infused individualist’s anthem: “Don’t their education, don’t need their ok,” Pixley asserts. If songs like this got played on commercial radio, this would be the monster hit.
Mama’s Got Snacks is funkier, with a New Orleans groove and an amusingly aphoristic, defiantly feminist lyric. In Voices – a setting of a Christopher Shaw poem – Pixley reaches from hazy chamber pop to an assertively bouncy cello-rock theme.
The album’s centerpiece is Everything Is Slow Motion, which begins as a moody, mystical, gorgeously drifting tone poem awash in layers of cello and rippling piano before Pixley hits a trip-hop groove. It reminds of Nina Simone at her most avant-garde.
Pixley orchestrates a carefree, Malian-tinged tune in African Prayer – and is that a balafon, or just Pixley’s cello running through a pitch pedal? In Between Sound comes across as a sunny reverse image of Everything Is Slow Motion, with distant hints of Indian music and Bob Marley. She wraps up the album with Watering, an attractively rippling folk-pop tune with piano and guitar, the closest thing to the Debutante Hour here. There’s a lot of depth on this record: if we get to the point where there’s still enough of a reason to pull together a best-of-2021list, this should be on it.