Graded on a Curve: Dolphin Midwives,
Body of Water

Dolphin Midwives is the recording and performance moniker of Portland, OR-based harpist, vocalist, sound artist, and composer Sage Fisher. Her chosen instrument might lead the uninitiated to anticipate ornate cascades of gorgeous pluck, but woah there, partner; while not lacking in glistening strings, Fisher’s latest gravitates toward the realms of contemporary experimental pop. Huh? But as the record unwinds, the inviting unusualness of its contents make it clear that Fisher hasn’t neglected her strengths. That’s nice. Available digitally, on CD and on either black or limited (100 copies, signed and numbered by Fisher) transparent aqua blue 140-gram vinyl, Body of Water is out now via Beacon Sound.

The cassette Orchid Milk was Dolphin Midwives’ first release, coming out in 2016 in an edition of 100 copies on the Obsolete Media Objects label, though it is Liminal Garden, which arrived early in 2019, that is designated as the project’s debut studio album. Body of Water, produced with Tucker Martine, is its boldly conceived follow-up.

Fisher has been additionally busy since the release of Orchid Milk, with her installation Naturaphones, which featured “large-scale interactive acoustic sculptures, ambient performance, and sculptural prototypes,” culminating a six-month residency for the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon College of Art & Craft. She also formed Dröna Choir in 2017 to realize invisibility ritual, her choral work intended to be performed on the new moon and in complete darkness.

That sounds like the makings of a good time, but it’s Fisher’s 2018 sound art performance/ installation Break: preparations for the apocalypse that’s most pertinent to Body of Water, as “Break,” with lyrics indeed referencing the apocalypse, is the album’s sixth track out of a dozen, standing as a mid-way point showcase that mingles experimental pop qualities, and the pleasantness of Fisher’s singing in particular, with the breadth of ambition that helps to define sound art. “Break” travels a considerable sonic distance, from jungle war ambience giving way to an enveloping vocal swirl, and all in just five minutes.

But in opening track “Hyperobject,” she leans heavily toward the experimental side of the equation, with sampled voice repetition accompanied by clicking canned percussion. In the span of 90 seconds, the intensity rapidly rises into a typhoon of stuttering CDs, angry typewriters and video game submachine guns, and then just as quickly, calms the fuck back down.

The title track swings over to the pop side of the spectrum. Vocally, Fisher can inspire a comparison to Kate Bush, though even with the contempo sheen (a la synthetic bass throbs and ample voice effects), she’s tapping into and indeed effectively extending the grand tradition of Laurie Anderson, which is cool, especially as the next track “Bloom” establishes a skittering chattering echo-laden vocal base (repeating the word “everything”) for Fisher to sing atop as keyboard tones loom large in the mix.

This is all fine enough on its own, but Body of Water excels through frequent structural shifts inside individual selections, e.g., the foundation of “Bloom” drifting away, with Fisher’s vocals soaring and then getting gently chopped up (not screwed) as the track winds to a close. “Night Vision” does something similar, beginning with layered rhythms as her vocals gradually enter the scene, only to become the sole focus, multi-tracked and pitch altered, at song’s end.

At the start, “Capricorn” sounds as if it’s scored for voice, computerized calliopes, a distant teletype machine, and briefly, a vacuum cleaner as heard through the wall from the office next door, but for the track’s finish, Fisher navigates toward another pop featherbed and totally sticks the landing. The emphasis on pop continues in “Clearing,” but in a refreshing mode again recalling Bush, though once more the unexpected occurs as the track gets infiltrated with what could be a field recording of nature sounds. A body of water, perhaps.

“Hummingbird I” and “Hummingbird II” cohere into a late delight, diving deeper into motifs explored earlier on the record, the skitter-chatter of “Bloom” subtly altered to apropos flutter and then stretched out (but not in the way you might think), and with sequential absorption essential to gather the full effect. The benefits of listening in order extend to Body of Water as a whole, even as I wrote about “Break” first and then saved the three tracks that foreground Fisher’s harp playing, “Fountain,” “Idyll,” and the album-concluding “Sunbathing” (the best of the bunch), for last.

All three magnify her abilities as a harpist and provide the album’s landscape with a further expansion/ integration, as each track contains subtle elements of Fisher’s sound artistry (but alas, no vocals). And so, Fisher hasn’t abandoned the harp in the pursuit of the experimental but has instead interwoven the instrument into Dolphin Midwives’ overall scheme. Sly! The result is that Body of Water is surprising on introduction and cohesively constructed, sporting diversity that flowers over repeated listens. It is a fully-formed, welcoming LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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