Graded on a Curve:
Elena Setién,
Unfamiliar Minds

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Elena Setién hails from the Basque region of Spain. With Unfamiliar Minds, she releases her fifth full-length, a collection of ten songs that evolved and cohered during the pandemic after an earlier group of pre-Covid compositions proved unsatisfying and were then set aside. With a new reality of solitude taking hold, Setién reoriented her approach after finding inspiration and a creative reset in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. But if distinguished by its intimacy, her latest is also striking in its depth. Vibrant and full of unexpected twists, the album is out January 28 on blue vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Thrill Jockey.

After being quite taken with Elena Setién’s 2019 album Another Kind of Revolution, I then proceeded to miss out on Mirande, her 2020 collab with Spanish musician-producer Xabier Erkizia and the group Grande Days, who are also from Spain. I missed out likely in part because Mirande was released not by Thrill Jockey but by Spanish label Forbidden Colours; indeed, it was in Thrill Jockey’s promotional text for Unfamiliar Minds that I was hipped to Mirande, a short 6-song affair (I’ve seen it listed as an EP) with lyrics in her native Basque language.

Setién sings in English on Unfamiliar Minds, with Dickinson’s poetry described as the springboard for this choice (please note that Another Kind of Revolution was also sung in English). Erkizia contributes electronics to the album and also co-arranged the songs, with Joseba Irazoki playing guitar on two tracks. Along with writing all the tracks, the rest of the instrumentation is by Setién, specifically keyboards, violin, and on the title track, guitar. All the vocals are Setién’s, as are the lyrics, save for “I Dwell in Possibility” and “In This Short Life,” where the words are Dickinson’s.

Unfamiliar Minds begins with “2020,” a slowly paced cut structured around Setién’s piano, a setting similar to the opening track on Another Kind of Revolution, except here, the mood is significantly more contemplative. Distant bird chirping presages the keyboard and the entrance of Setién’s subtly multitracked voice, alternately breathy and lilting, pretty yet substantive. Then, the strings come in.

“Situation” is also largely based around piano and voice, though here, the playing is more crisply assertive as her vocals soar, both at the start and during the choruses. It’s very much in the art-pop mode of her 2019 album, accentuated here with appealing injections of retro analog electronics from Erkizia and a passage of dialogue lifted from, I’m assuming, an Old Hollywood film (it sounds familiar, but I’m frustratingly unable to place it; a melodrama, I’m certain).

Perhaps the biggest difference between Another Kind of Revolution and Unfamiliar Minds is that the former occasionally registered as Setién fronting a band, while this new one is a more solo-focused affair, understandably so given world circumstances, but yet it’s still fully fleshed out, as during “I Dwell in Possibility,” which is jagged but still pop-aligned, and in “New,” where the atmosphere becomes a little reminiscent of Laurie Anderson wholeheartedly embracing environmental ambience (i.e. rainforest New Age).

The harsh reverberating electronic pulse of “Such a Drag” contrasts somewhat with the textures that surround it on the album, though the vocals, and particularly the layered repetition of the title, along with the sentiments expressed, help to secure the track’s place in the album’s flowing trajectory. That is, “Such a Drag” is not an outlier.

There are standouts however, such as “In This Short Life,” where a moody, hazy electronic soundscape gets combined with swells of organ that’re decidedly ’60s in comportment. Additionally, the adaptation of Dickinson’s poetry is capped with a wonderful wordless vocal flourish, a technique that’s even more prominent in the following piece “This Too Will Pass,” as is the use of organ, this time with a distinctly baroque sensibility.

From there a considerably singer-songwriter-like stretch commences, with Setién’s hearty singing and strumming in the title track easily recommendable to fans of Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, and upon reflection, even Josephine Foster. The sweetly woozy infusion of canned strings (an assumption I make based on the instrumental credits) near song’s end is a delight.

Sunbaked and a bit bluesy, “No Trace” plays around with an almost ’90s Alt-rock feel, like it was co-produced by Daniel Lanois and Flood or something. This is frankly flirting with an unpalatable situation, but Setién has the songs and the good judgement to pull it off. Helping matters is that “No Trace” feels like a closing track but isn’t.

That distinction belongs to “Water,” no less introspective than “2020” at the record’s start but with an engaging air of regenerative promise as it progresses toward a wholly fulfilling quiet wind down finish. It’s also no less of a singer-songwriter-ish scenario, though it’s terrific how the bell-like electric piano tones grow more distorted as the song’s intensity does crest.

In summation, Elena Setién’s latest succeeds as a pandemic album because, per the label’s description, she didn’t deliberately intend to make a pandemic album. Instead, as songs she carried over the divide no longer made sense, she stopped, regrouped and adjusted, continued living life, found inspiration in art, and then took another stab at making music. In the tough circumstances of this particular time, the results resonate as unforced, so that Unfamiliar Minds sounds like Setién’s strongest album yet.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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