Julia Vorontsova plays Russian folk noir. The sound of her voice and her lute are much the same, a muted, disconsolate presence. One suspects that her lead guitarist, Zeke Zema, would rather be playing metal, but on her 2016 album Over – streaming at Spotify – his biting, distorted lines are usually back in the mix. Of all the albums to have made it to the hard drive here over the past few years, this is one of the most haunting. Vorontsova’s lyrics – in Russian and Romanes – reflect a lot of irony, heartbreak and dissolution.
The instrumentation is spare but intricately layered, with acoustic and electric guitars and Marie-Sophie Leturq,’s resonant cello over a low-key rhythm section of Ian Walker on bass and Aaron Sterling on drums. The quietly brooding opening track, St. Pete is just variations on an enigmatic lute riff, the drums like furtive footfalls in the snow.
The second cut, Malenitsa, is a briskly swaying minor-key folk tune lowlit with ghostly, shimmery guitar lines. Oubliette, a dark Russian cabaret number set to a rock backbeat, contains two of the album’s most haphazardly incisive guitar solos. Gently vibrato-tinged cello floats beneath Vorontsova’s delicate fingerpickng in Gretchen, a melancholy, Goethe-inspired waltz.
The album’s longest song is Gypsy, a sotto-voce, somewhat hypnotic duet. After that, Vorontsova goes back to mashing up Russian cabaret with steady, strolling, uneasy Laurel Canyon psychedelia in Alps, capped off by a moody slide guitar solo. Shivery cello and acidically hovering electric guitar mingle with Vorontsova’s nimble fingerpicking in Knight Violin.
She reverts to quiet, nebulous, overcast sonics for Nameless and its unexpectedly tricky rhythms. The album’s title track is a slow, conspiratorial, Romany jazz-tinged waltz with an unexpected guitar duel midway through.
The first of two tracks titled Prayer, an elegantly swaying ballad in 6/8 time could be Marissa Nadler in Russian – at least until the strut at the end with all the frenetically bluesy guitar. With its steady, syncopated drive and grimly gorgeous layers of guitar, Pick is the album’s mighty, understated peak. Likewise, the even quieter Prayer 2 has a macabre undercurrent. Vorontsova closes the record with Air, a spare, skeletally dancing number with bells and lots of ringing guitar harmonics. Even if you don’t speak Russian, this is a rapturously good listen if you gravitate toward music reflecting the kind of darkness that has surrounded us since March 16 of last year