Graded on a Curve:
Elena Setién,
Another Kind Of Revolution

A native of Spain’s Basque region, Elena Setién has just released her third album, and across ten songs it highlights her strengths as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and songwriter. Her sound is layered and inviting, an example of art-pop that doesn’t favor one side of the hyphen over the other, and while she’s quite attentive to the lyrical side of Another Kind Of Revolutions equation, the playing, nearly all of it executed by Setién herself (guitarist Steve Gunn is a notable guest contributor) never takes a back seat. The album is out now on LP with a limited amount on red vinyl, on CD in a four-panel mini-LP gatefold package, and of course digitally through Thrill Jockey.

Thrill Jockey’s promotional bio for Another Kind Of Revolution, Elena Setién’s debut for the label (and it appears, her first release on wax) mentions that she has extensive experience as an improvisor. It’s stated without elaboration in support of her musical depth in a setting that’s decidedly pop, but the bio on her website (written around the time of her 2013 solo debut Twelve Sisters) relates appearances at over a half-dozen Euro jazz festivals (including Moers) and extensive touring in a duo Little Red Suitcase.

I’m not exactly sure how that twosome connects to Setién’s terrific singing on the self-titled 2012 CD by Little Red Big Bang, a nonet with much to recommend combining avant-jazz with tangibly straight-ahead big band action, but connect they do. Again, it’s a scenario broached but not belabored by Thrill Jockey, and it’s expanded upon in this review to make a point about what Elena Setién is not.

Sometimes, when improvisors/ jazzers elect to tackle pop, the results can come off as arrogant (as in “lemme show you how it’s done”), slumming (often manifested by an absence of the heartfelt), or a damaging air of the fancy-pantsed (which can detrimentally combine with the presence of ego cited above. Setién succumbs to none of it.

Europe also has a worthy and deep tradition of avant-pop (the Rock in Opposition movement, for instance), but Setién’s art-pop doesn’t branch into avant territory during Another Kind Of Revolution, nor does it on her two prior solo discs (Dreaming of Earthly Things from 2016 is her second). Instead, this album’s opener “The Wheel that Drives You” springs from a piano-based singer-songwriter base that’s distinguished by beauty moves, most prominently in the sound of Setién’s piano and her singing, combined with heft both emotional and instrumental.

Along with Gunn’s input on two tracks, there is additional guitar from Andreas Fuglebæk on four selections including “The Wheel that Drives You.” Along with engineering and mixing, Mikel Azpiroz plays bass synth on the title track, but Setién is responsible for everything else. Her two main axes are keyboards and violin, but she also adds percussion to a landscape that’s consistently vivid if never overly florid.

After a few spins, or perhaps just one, a listener might be confronted with a lack of range, particularly in tempo, across Another Kind Of Revolution. This could be a sticking point for some, but it seems wrong to peg it as a flaw, as variety isn’t inherently a strength. Setién’s prior records are considerably more diverse, but this new one registers as her best yet, in part through moments of soaring intensity, e.g. the standout title track.

A dearth of range is certainly debatable. “Window One” scales back to electric piano, vocals and intermittent passages of enveloping ambiance, and is a gripping display of less-is-more. From there, “Sail Down the River” is initially reminiscent of a lullaby with crystalline music box accompaniment, though the mood subtly darkens nearer to the concise piece’s end. And the rat-tat-tat snare and electric guitar ripples of “Old Jamie” give it a psych feel, though the foundation is Setién’s piano, sturdy but not showy.

With its piano motif, a seemingly simple cascade of notes that conjures images of being played on a 200-year-old upright in the back of a dilapidated church, “Down the Meadow” is a delight, in large part because it offers an atmosphere that’s somewhat cinematic; it could work as Southern gothic (more of that snare) or neo-noir out West, without being too on-the-nose. With a shift to the tom drums and a mingling of aspects that border on catchy, “Far from the Madding Crowd” feels faster than it actually is.

In terms of comparisons, Setién can remind me a little bit of numerous artists, but “We See You Shining for a While” brought to mind Cat Power circa The Greatest, and that’s cool. “Window Two (for Sigurd and Albert)” returns to the template of its titular predecessor, but with a key difference as it offers some of the most powerful singing on the record. Partially through a resurgence of psych guitar, “She Was So Fair” had me thinking of both Mazzy Star and Damon and Naomi, and that’s a splendid way to close a record.

With the title of Another Kind Of Revolution, Elena Setién illuminates a clear alternative to the concept of change as upheaval. It is an unflustered record, finely-tuned yet not too painstakingly crafted. As said, I rate it as her strongest solo effort so far, and one that holds much promise for subsequent releases.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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