Chances are, when most people hear of Asthmatic Kitty Records they immediately think of Sufjan Stevens, and understandably so. Stevens is indie music’s resident wunderkind, with a string of critically acclaimed releases to his name (two of which came out this year). What’s more, Asthmatic Kitty Records is Sufjan’s baby in part — he started the label with his stepfather, Lowell Brams, in 1998.
Asthmatic Kitty Records, however, boasts a wealth of talent that often gets overshadowed by the achievements of its founder. One such talent is Liz Janes. Like much of Asthmatic Kitty Records’ roster, it’s difficult to pigeonhole Janes, other than to simply bestow on her the ubiquitous “indie” label. Her music, which draws from classic pop, soul, country, blues, and folk, is often characterized by a lo-fi aesthetic, which grants her songs a certain roughness and immediacy. And her voice is truly charming, moving from sultry to world-weary with equal aplomb.
Even longtime listeners of Janes — which I consider myself to be — might find themselves a little confounded, though, when they begin listening to Say Goodbye (2010, Asthmatic Kitty Records). “I Don’t Believe” may be an atypical song in the woman’s discography — it certainly threw me for a loop when I first heard it — but it’s one of the most gorgeous. Backed by Rhodes piano, horns, and a troupe of ghostly backup singers, Janes sings:
I, I don’t believe in you but I think of you all the time
And I, I want you so much but I don’t know what you’ll do with me
All I know for sure is that I belong to you
Even though I’m always wandering
And even in your arms I get so lost and lonely
And noone ever told me love could be like this
A break-up song that sings of commitment, or a love song that chronicles the doubts inherent to any sort of relationship? And one that could very well be directed at the good Lord above? Such is the deceptive simplicity of Janes’ music, that it can contain such intriguing contrasts with aplomb and reveal depth when you simply don’t expect it. Another example of this is “Bitty Thing”. It’s a pretty enough tune, charming even, with its delicate acoustic guitar and shimmering chimes. But as Janes sings “Why is every little bitty thing falling apart?”, the song reveals a surprising emotional heft thanks to Janes’ plaintive vocals and some unexpected melodic shifts. And then there’s the bombastic bridge that bursts out of nowhere with cymbals a-crashing, and yet somehow fails to upset the song’s fragile tone.
Janes’ unpredictability is her great strength, but it’s also a weakness. The album can delight the listener with unexpected twists and turns but it can also go down paths that, while they indicate the album has its heart in the right place, simply don’t pan out. Some of the slower, more soulful songs — e.g., “Who Will Take Care”, “Firefly” — contain some of Say Goodbye‘s most penetrating lyrics — but their musical arrangements are plodding and prevents them from having the impact they could have had otherwise. This is especially true with “Firefly”, a song about the difficulties and fears of having a child, and one whose lyrics would’ve certainly benefited from a different arrangement.
However, those moments are few and far between. Most of the time, Janes’ refusal to settle down into a comfortable template makes Say Goodbye an interesting musical journey. On “Anchor”, Janes’ voice at its grittiest and most soulful as she sings of her need for a bedrock faith to provide stability in her tumultuous life, and it’s matched by a stark, bone-dry guitar — that suddenly gives way to something more lush and atmospheric, via scattered drums and more of those lovely Rhodes tones, that adds an extra layer of longing to Janes’ performance. Later in the album, “Trees” might borrow from R&B in Janes’ vocal stylings and funky guitar licks, but it’s not afraid to move in a psychedelic direction at the same time, with some joyous horns thrown in for good measure.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to Say Goodbye beyond intriguing genre mixtures and mashups. A spirituality flows throughout this album, one that finds Janes wrestling with God and the brokenness of the world while seeking after some semblance of comfort and peace. Indeed, the album often seems like Janes’ own spiritual chronicle, as she moves from a place of struggling with God’s love and sovereignty to finally finding some way to rest within it. “Time and Space” closes the album with these reassuring thoughts, accompanied by gently strummed acoustic guitar and some delicate vibes:
Time and space are constructs of grace
That keep us with our sanity
Time and space cannot replace
Our longing for eternity
It’s a comforting place to end up, as well as a fitting end to one of the more interesting musical — and spiritual — journeys you’re likely to hear all year.
Christ and Pop Culture was provided a review copy of this album from Asthmatic Kitty.