Norway’s Silje Nes home records, and while it adds warmth
and intimacy to her songs, they come off so delicate and cocoon-like they can
induce claustrophobia — you can’t help but think she would benefit from
another musician’s hide-toughening input and the room it would require to let
them into her songs. Now, Nes wields delicacy like an anvil, and that warmth
and intimacy feels definitely like the Nordic variety. Her sophomore release –
while certainly lovely at times – also suffers from these contradictions.
You have to start with Nes’ lighter-than-air vocals, which
dominate each track but never rise above the whisper decibel; they’re so soft
they tend to shy away in the folds of other instruments. That’s a double-edged
sword – her voice is foremost another texture, which can be nice, but it
relegates lyrics to an afterthought. On certain tracks you don’t give a damn —
on “Levitation,” her sibilant delivery coats what passes for verses in pleasing
mists – while on others it’s simply too insubstantial. On “Symmetry of An Empty
Space,” for instance, Nes makes The Innocence Mission chick sound like Tom
Waits; on “Crystals,” she slows to a near-talk pace and sounds like your
prepubescent kid sister.
To anchor the songs, Nes uses crystalline guitar figures
similar to the circular patterns Tara Jane O’Neill employs, though not quite as
hypnotically riveting. Still, they serve as ballast for songs so slight and ethereal
they seem to almost dissolve at times. Even the percussion — Nes played
timpani in an orchestra and bass drum in a marching band – usually sounds like
an usher politely asking you to move along.
Nes’ real strength lies in her use of accents, best exemplified
in her blend of the organic and processed. The viola on “The Glass Harp” contrasts perfectly with a swath of synth
static that also doubles as a bridge; a glock and melodica bring welcome
leavening to the sinister undertow in “Silver > Blue”; on “The Card House,”
multiple layers of guitars create a gorgeous quilt for delicate background
noise; on “Rewind” the chirping birds and background loops sound like a child’s
music box as imagined by the Brothers Grimm; and the melodic chop shop effects
and beats of “Shades” place it proudly in the company of cut-and-paste wizards
like Four Tet and Books.
disc’s longest track, embodies both the good and bad about this record. Riding
a Moog’s percussive and catchy beat, Nes drapes it with feedback and synth
noise (and those previously mentioned sibilants) through the first half of the
six-minute song, creating genuine heat for the only time on the record. She
drops the beat during a noise-filled middle eight, and then threatens to bring it
back from then on without delivering. The song peters out without resolution –
a perfectly acceptable outcome if what came before didn’t cry out for closure –
as Nes mumbles something indecipherable in the far-off distance.
Still, there’s a lot to recommend Nes, and two records into
her solo career she shows the kind of sonic curiosity and nascent chop shop
skills that usually results in something memorable one day. Opticks comes close at times, but the
distance between the promise and the final tally for most of these songs is
just enough still to keep their warmth at arm’s length.
“The Glass Harp” JOHN SCHACHT