Graded on a Curve: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS

Analog synthesizer specialist, composer, and Berklee College of Music graduate Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith first appeared on the scene roughly six years ago, but with her upcoming full-length EARS her profile is poised to expand considerably; its warmly expansive blend of electronics and organic instrumentation is out on LP, CD, and digital on April 1 through Western Vinyl. Additionally, she’s going to be supporting Animal Collective in the States and Battles in Europe this spring; based on the achievement of her latest it’s advisable to arrive early.

Alongside other qualities, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music exudes facets of experimentation, traits compatible with the New Age genre and even gentle threads of hippie-ish psychedelia. She describes her formative years as being in communion with the natural environment of Orcas Island in the northwest corner of Washington State; Cocoon, the sole album by Ever Isles, her folk duo with Jeremy Robert Harris, was recorded there in 2010.

The scoop is that after spending time with a friend’s synthesizer she abandoned Ever Isles for solo electronic exploration. And not just any synth; the direction altering device was the Buchla 100 Series Modular Electronic Music System. Its creator Don Buchla is a figure as important in electronic music history (if not as well-known) as his contemporary Robert Moog; the Buchla 100 dates from 1963 and remains an analog apparatus of vast potential, notably used by Morton Subotnick for his classic ’67 LP Silver Apples of the Moon.

Smith’s use of Buchla’s creations, including the Buchla Music Easel (which emerged a decade after the 100 Series) extends to a frankly unsurprising collaboration in progress with electronic music pioneer and Buchla colleague Suzanne Ciani, but she’s also worked with Reggie Watts and served as the sound designer for Panda Bear’s “Boys Latin” video.

Smith’s early stuff is available digitally through Bandcamp, and distinguished amongst those offerings are the environmentally-themed collections Cows will eat the weeds and Useful Trees. Both releases came out in 2012 and utilized the Buchla in tandem with guitar, piano, and vocals via single takes on a 4-track, but it’s with Tides, her digital-only debut for Western Vinyl from 2014, that she took a significant step forward.

Broken into ten numbered sections varying in length from nearly fifteen minutes to just over two and initially conceived as audio accompaniment to yoga classes, Tides can be adequately assessed as a tranquil experience, though it’s not as sedate as one might assume given the circumstances. Recommended for fans of Laurie Spiegel, it provides a fine point of entry into Smith’s body of work.

For folks with a more contempo avant-pop orientation a la Animal Collective and Dan Deacon, last year’s Euclid could function as a solid first taste. Serving as her vinyl debut as a solo artist (copies of the Ever Isles LP are apparently still around), it drops six relatively song-based pieces onto side one and fills the flip with the twelve parts of the appealingly spacey and retro-futurist “Labyrinths.”

But upon inspection it’s clear that EARS will present newcomers to Smith with a perfectly suitable introduction. It combines continued work with the Easel with a return to organic instrumentation, specifically her arrangement for a woodwind quintet, and a greater emphasis on vocals; all but one track features her voice.

The results retain the familiar aspects of her sound while blossoming into her most vivid, multifaceted aural canvas to date. Opener “First Flight” begins with a somewhat BBC Radiophonic Workshop-like cascade of undulating synth and then proceeds to swathe it further electronic interjections. But the most striking ingredient is her singing, which swells forth effervescently and with a mild resemblance to African choral music.

This isn’t really a shocker, a Smith has professed a love of mbira music; indeed, part of her success as a budding innovator is a disinclination to limit herself to the standard experimental realm. She doesn’t strain for diversity however, as “Wetlands” cultivates a New Age-descended glow orbited by assorted sonic chatter; her manipulated chant enters late.

It’s during “Envelop” that the flourishing of Smith’s vision surfaces most boldly, the horns flowing naturally as her singing enters shortly thereafter. Early on the piece brings a tidbit of Eno to the table as its interwoven patterns nod slightly toward minimalist composition and the vocals supply a tad of pop counterpoint.

Like much of her material, “When I Try I’m Full” starts out in electronic drift mode and becomes more complex as it progresses, Smith using similar techniques (such as granular synthesis) but with fresh twists such as a stuttering effect on her voice, a few vocoder-like bursts, and some treated horn wiggling. And like “Wetlands,” the opening moments of “Rare Things Grow” can recall a film score with the resonances of the movie’s action left in the mix.

As Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is cited as an inspiration for EARS, the soundtrack likeness is ultimately no surprise, but “Rare Things Grow” adds more of Smith’s increasingly impressive horn arranging and an ascending vocal repetition that’s cinematic quality is downright shrewd.

As her background emphasizes, nature is one of Smith’s biggest influences, the point driven home by the title and initial reverberations of “Anthropoda,” though it wastes no time in unveiling the record’s most overtly melodious passage. “Stratus” is EARS’ solitary vocal-less selection, again gesturing in the vicinity of ‘70s minimalism as its use of saxophone brought Dickey Landry to mind.

It’s nicely sets up the LP’s closer and at eleven minutes its lengthiest entry by a wide margin. Large enough that it can give the false impression of encompassing this valuable artist’s essence, “Existence in the Unfurling” can also register as the album’s centerpiece. In reality, the entirety is essential. To quote Smith: “My hope is that, on a straight through listen, in a darkened room, on a loud stereo, EARS will inspire a rich visual narrative in listeners’ minds.” Right on, Kaitlyn…right fucking on.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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