Graded on a Curve:
Yara Asmar,
Home Recordings
2018–2021

Yara Asmar is a multi-instrumentalist, video artist, and puppeteer who currently lives in Beirut with her house cat Mushroom. Just 25 years old, her debut release offers an uncommonly rich blend of experimentation, field recordings, and ambient sensibilities across seven tracks. Recorded in her place of residence via mobile phone and cassette, the aptly titled Home Recordings 2018–2021 is also appropriately issued on tape, with chosen format nicely echoing the method of conception, and it’s available in an edition of 200, so don’t dawdle in procuring a copy. It’s released through Hive Mind Records, one of the most reliably interesting labels on the contemporary scene.

Yara Asmar provides a concise bit of biography and then lets the music do the talking, which is much appreciated. But neither is she calculatedly mysterious; in the rundown of the instruments played on Home Recordings 2018–2021, it’s mentioned that the accordion used on the set belonged to her grandmother, and that it was found in the attic of her grandparents’ home in Lebanon (and so, a pertinent tidbit of further background).

Asmar also plays piano (both standard and toy models), metallophone, glockenspiel, synthesizer, toys, and music boxes, and in the tape’s fascinating second track, “Sleeping in Church – Tape 1 – On a Warm Day I Turned to Tell You Something but There Was Nothing There,” she interweaves  field recordings of hymns sung in Lebanon churches into the scheme, at one point manipulating them to surreal and ominous effect.

The cassette’s opener “It’s Always October on Sunday” is loose and at times sparse as it makes its introductions, but it’s never random, beginning with a combo of bold chimelike tones (the toy piano, the metallophone, those music boxes), elements further mingled with bits of percussive rattle (later, more directly rhythmic interjections), and sustained, resonating tones. The piece and others on the tape do suggest sound collage at times, a similarity aided by the use of field recordings, natch, but distinguished by the fact that Asmar plays everything else.

“Fish Can’t Tie Their Shoelaces, Silly” comes on strong with the synth shimmer, like it could’ve been a track on a NNA Tapes sampler, which is to say, it’s quite contemporary, but then right in the middle comes this weird detour into a twisted and deeply saturated carnivalesque neighborhood; it’s like the audio to a particularly sweaty dream experienced by David Lynch circa 1976.

“We Put Her in a Box and Never Spoke of It Again” begins with a discernable melodic pattern somewhere between the early Residents and the soundtrack to a student film where a precession of dancing skeletons wind their way, conga line-style, into a cave. There is a disintegration into abstraction, and then a return to the melody, but this time, it’s considerably more blown out in the mix.

“There Is a Science to Days Like These (But I Am a Slow Learner)” reinforces Asmar’s contempo strengths, but does it with the accordion, in turn creating a striking juxtaposition, especially as stretches of the track build up an aura that’s decidedly Modernist Classical (I thought of both Kubrick and Tarkovsky, both in sci-fi mode). “4 Is an Okay Number” begins with another field recording (or possibly layered recordings) of a distant voice and chirping birds while retaining the accordion, with the recording’s unified approach sharply underlined.

Most of the tracks here run in the ballpark of seven minutes (the opener breaks ten), but “Thanks for Coming” delivers a tidy 74 second glistening denouement to the set. It drives home the methodical and robust nature of Yara Asmar’s approach. Home Recordings 2018–2021 is a remarkable debut.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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