Graded on a Curve: Chelsea Wolfe, Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs

After two solid albums that received a moderate amount of attention in the crowded contemporary music scene, Chelsea Wolfe has quickly returned with her best record yet, Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs. It stands apart from the noisier mode of her previous work while finding her successfully expressing her own voice. The only problem is that it’s over far too soon; hopefully she’ll expand upon the strides of this LP rather than treating it as a brief tangent.

Chelsea Wolfe came to my attention back in 2010 with her debut full-length The Grime and the Glow. A quality debut, the record tagged her work as an intense blend of noisy rock, bruised folk and gothic touches. Comparisons were made to Polly Jean Harvey, and that wasn’t a bit inappropriate.

But the impression that continues to hit me when listening to Wolfe’s first album relates to late-‘80s underground rock; a few moments persistently bring Evol/Sister-era Sonic Youth to mind, and if nothing on The Grime and the Glow sounds explicitly like Swans, the LP definitely registers as sonically sympathetic to what vintage Gira and Co were/are doing as they shifted away from pure anti-social pummel.

Wolfe’s not accurately a New York thing though, for she hails from Los Angeles. And she has a great voice, in fact reminding me more than once on her debut of a Hope Sandoval that instead of excelling as a sleepy-lidded chanteuse preferred to inhabit the righteous zone of punk-informed disrupter (though Wolfe can do a pretty good job of sounding like the actual living breathing Sandoval via The Grime and Glow’s bonus track version of the standard “You Are My Sunshine”). Yes, punk is definitely in her DNA; the most intriguing entry in her small discography is an as of yet unheard-by-me MP3 only tribute to the UK anarcho-punk band Rudimentary Peni.

The punk connection is also perceptible (if mostly implicit) on The Grime and the Glow and its follow-up from last year Apokalypsis. The biggest difference between the two albums is a very familiar one, specifically that her first felt very private and her second very public. Much of this will have to do with simple growing confidence. And the references to PJ seemed to increase with the arrival of Apokalypsis. It was a solid sophomore effort, though I’m still undecided if it surpassed the overall quality of its predecessor. Well, I’m pleased to report that Wolfe’s latest outing does chart great strides for the performer, chiefly in the distinctiveness of her songwriting.

Apokalypsis features a cover photo of Wolfe with her eyes whited-out, an image striking if slightly unsettling. In contrast Unknown Rooms’ sleeve is adorned with a vivid photo of a woman on a bed (presumably Wolfe) with her hand covering her face. The obvious difference in these two photographs, one bold and demanding, the other modest if no less alluring, portray a contrast in intent that is greatly underscored by the qualifier in this new records’ title: A Collection of Acoustic Songs.

“Flatlands” opens the album with the warmth of plucking guitar accompanied with the muffled if insistent pulse of a bass drum, a minimal atmosphere that’s shortly followed by the entrance of Wolfe’s breathy yet grounded vocals. Along the way viola and violin slowly assert themselves, less lush then aching ala the long tradition of chamber music, and as the strings start to soar they build up an appealing momentum that benefits from the song’s brevity.

“The Way We Used To” follows this with a sharp shift in texture, the piece using soulful multi-tracked voices as a layered bedrock for Wolfe to sing over and mingle with. Along the way a simple bass and drum pattern brings a repetitive urgency to the tune. While it’s accurately tagged as belonging to the dark (if generally unforced) aura the artist has explored on her first two records, it’s described even better as presenting an agreeable sense of yearning, establishing an emotional core that’s also subdued.

The acoustic guitar returns for “Spinning Centers,” as do the strings, though their role is different, employing some subtle pizzicato work on a song that’s agenda is a chilly fragility. Wolfe’s vocals initially present a slightly eerie wordless sweetness, and when she begins to sing her lyrics the tone is wispy but far from precious, remindful of some of the better indie folk that surfaced about a decade back. It’s quiet, and yet it’s not soft.

“Appalachia” offers another welcome change in direction. Wolfe’s acoustic engages with strumming mode for the first time, aided again by unfussy accompaniment from the bass/drums and some pointed accents from the stings. The song works up a fine sense of foreboding, forming a tension that grows in assertiveness as it progresses, with its edginess ultimately never released. This tactic is frankly for the best.

The half-minute long “I Died With You” is made up of Wolfe’s overdubbed vocals alone, providing the LP with a nice taste of her range, an additive that’s quite unexpected given her previous track record of brooding art-goth motions (it’s about as far from the wild and guttural Diamanda Galas in the jungle extremity of Apokalypsis’ brief opener “Primal/Carnal” as you can get).

“Boyfriend” is attractively sparse in its initial moments, with more of just Wolfe’s voice and her guitar, the mood casually reminiscent of the early material from Sharon Van Etten. But just when the song appears to have settled into its framework of forlorn expressiveness, along comes some analog synth from frequent collaborator Ben Chisholm to shake the program up a bit. Nicely done.

If “Our Work Was Good” is the record’s briskest number, it also utilizes the broadest instrumental palate, with the return of that acoustic strum, bass, drum, piano, additional guitar and even some light touches of tambourine. The only problem is that at less than two minutes the song is simply too short. Where the relative succinctness of “Flatlands” works in its favor, methinks Wolfe could’ve doubled the length of “Our Work Was Good” by bringing in the viola and violin (one of this record’s best elements) to glide over an added second half and to excellent effect.

“Hyper Oz” brings Unknown Rooms its doomiest moments and does so by diverting from the previous track’s breadth of instrumentation, employing only Wolfe’s vocals, the stark raking of what sounds like a thrift-store autoharp, and recording hiss. The cut earns the descriptor of gothic folk with ease. And while surely not without precedent, “Hyper Oz” also doesn’t bring any direct predecessor quickly to mind, a circumstance that could bode well for Wolfe’s future endeavors.

“Sunstorm” ends the album on a rather curious if by no means unpleasant note, with only forceful, echo-laden, almost percussively played piano and Wolfe’s voice ping-ponging back and forth in the stereo channels, bringing forward fragmented imagery that gives way to a desperate call and response. It’s a strong conclusion to a record that’s main flaw lies not in any musical miscalculation but in how it leaves the ears titillated but unsatisfied, eagerly hungering for more. Maybe that was the intention, but at just shy of twenty-eight minutes in length, Unknown Rooms connects not like a full aural meal but instead as an exceptionally prepared appetizer.

Or maybe more appropriately, it registers as a digression. Again, the record’s full title seems to deliberately set it up as a thing apart from Wolfe’s standard operating procedure (which it sorta is), and if this is a one-off, that’s a shame. For if The Grime and the Glow was a good opening statement, it was a little unfocused and too long (even shorn of its bonus cuts), factors unsurprising and easily forgivable for a debut.

And if Apokalypsis was just the right length, then it shouldered a different problem, that of solidifying a readily graspable personality for its maker. Wolfe was by no means flagrantly biting the moves of other artists, but neither had she really stepped out of the shadows of her influences. In a nutshell, her first two LPs were expressions of potential only partially realized.

Unknown Rooms makes some great strides and then, bam, it’s over just when she’s getting warmed up. In other situations this wouldn’t be such a big deal; the record that leaves one salivating for more has been a reliable musical maneuver for decades. In this case however, it’s uncertain just what the artist has up her sleeve.

I’m not suggesting that Chelsea Wolfe abandon the noisiness of her previous work, certainly not. That would be an error I think, for she conjures a racket far too well. But relegating to the sidelines the very impressive successes of this disc would be an ever bigger mistake, for it’s the best music she’s made yet.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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