Graded on a Curve:
Elsa Hewitt,
LUPA

Based in London and hailing from Sussex via Yorkshire, Elsa Hewitt is an electronic producer and songwriter who’s been active since 2017, and with a fondness for releasing her music on cassette. To wit, LUPA, her latest and sixth overall, is available on tape in an attractive edition of 50, but it’s also fresh out on vinyl through Tompkins Square. As a document of her consistently evolving skills, it’s both inviting and elusive, as likely to please curious dabblers as those with an undying jones for electronic sounds.

LUPA isn’t Elsa Hewitt’s vinyl debut. Her 2019 release, Citrus Paradisi, received a wax pressing late last year that’s still available through the Lobster Theremin label. There’s also a self-released single LP distillation of Becoming Real – Trilogy, a 3CD set that corrals Hewitt’s three tapes from 2017, Cameras From Mars, Dum Spiro Spero, and Peng Variations.

The contents of Becoming Real – Trilogy; that is, the full 3CD version (I’ve not listened to the compilation), reinforce Hewitt as a writer of songs (as distinct from a crafter of soundscapes, rhythmic thickets or tangles of abstraction), though her music gravitates not toward synth-pop but rather a blend of experimental techniques and progressive dance impulses with samples (occasionally humorous). Singing (and even rapping during Cameras From Mars track “Rainbowz”) aids considerably in establishing the songlike aura.

Cool thing is, Hewitt’s songs roam around a lot, so that the progression is never predictable. Circus Paradisi can be considered a rapid-fire spurt of advancement, the tracks more wide-ranging and more confident as the brightness/ boldness doesn’t break the spell cast by her 2017 tapes. Contrasting, the cassette “Quilt Jams,” described as wordless, spontaneously created and modest, was issued shortly before Circus Paradisi.

I haven’t heard that one, but I have soaked up “Ghostcats,” which came out last year on tape (note that all of Hewitt’s cassettes are issued on her ERH label with many still available) and is described as something of a counterpart to “Quilt Jams.” A distinction between the two is that some words do creep into “Ghostcats” (but not that many). A bigger contrast with Circus Paradisi is the nature of the audio, which can be described as lo-fi, though as she’s not ladling on the tape hiss, is just as aptly tagged as scaled-back.

LUPA is decidedly not a scaled-back situation. Opener “Howl” can even be assessed as lush, with Hewitt’s voice sultry, which is fitting as the track’s second half cultivates an R&B-ish vibe. It’s a sweet kickoff to a record that highlights one of Hewitt’s strengths: namely, just when it seems a track has laid its cards on the table, like the cyclical layering at the start of “Higher Bear” for instance, she swoops in with another element, which in this track is an added sprinkling of electro bounce.

Another positive is that Hewitt avoids laying things on too thick while also not being subtle. Another way of putting it is that “Car in the Sun” is letting its weird pop flag fly, with the strangeness extending to over five minutes and validating descriptions of her music as psychedelic. But let me return to the subject of layering, as there is so much going on simultaneously in Hewitt’s songs, e.g. the clinical air of ’90s techno with a low-mixed bed of sampled spoken audio in “Inhaler,” all before the entrance of her vocals, which are pretty enough to work in a dream pop context (that lushness, again).

“Lavender” magnifies the dream pop connection, but it’s frankly far more interesting than most examples of the style. For one thing, in portions of the track, there is audio that sounds like a recording of a campfire. On her earlier recordings, the sampling method dished a few brief passages that inspired thoughts of The Books (not at all a bad thing), but those instances are all but absent across LUPA as Hewitt is swiftly coming into her own (also not at all a bad thing).

Another aspect that’s not as common in LUPA’s scenario are dancy thrusts, though “Squirrelex” is something of an exception. That’s not to suggest a lack of rhythm across the record; it sometimes just takes a while to get there, as in “Fuzzy Duck,” which opens in a choppy, almost collage-like manner before settling down and stretching out like breathy pop heard through a cheap radio in an equally cheap hotel room on a sleep deprived morning.

“IFM” finds her establishing a cinematic tension amid sustained tones and then giving it a boost of song structure through her singing as those tones abruptly stop but the tension persists. Eventually, a beat arises. Finale “Multicorp Unicorn” features a loop that nearly extends throughout the track, though it’s eventually subsumed by resonating ambiance.

Elsa Hewitt might seem to be an odd fit for Tompkins Square, an enterprise that’s deserved high rep is based mostly on its dedication to variations on American Primitive guitar, (the Imaginational Anthem series), reissues of old-time, gospel and rescued ’70s private press LPs, plus a handful of contempo folk-derived pickers and songwriters (William Tyler, Brigid Mae Power). And I’ll admit to being initially surprised.

But Josh Rosenthal’s label has also issued jazz (Bern Nix, Charles Gayle, Ran Blake), experimental stuff (Meredith Monk, Entourage Music, and Theater Ensemble) and even the North American edition of Prefab Sprout’s Let’s Change the World With Music. So I’d say Elsa Hewitt’s LUPA fits into the overall scheme pretty damned well.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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