Seven Principles of Leave No Trace is a loose reference to a
place in Buddhist dharma that marks the end of change. A person attaining it is said to be in neither existence or non-existence, but rather a state of being
divorced from one's bodily being and all the suffering it entails. This sophomore effort by New York-based collective Edison Woods, who also stage performance art, art installations and theatre performances, may be said to expose the difficulties inherent in upholding such a way of life.
Amid these chamber-pop pieces laced with neoclassical themes, vocalist Julia Frodahl, her voice a warbling throaty coo, glides atop the wispy breaths of violin, cello, piano and ambient noise as they disappear into one another like
people vanishing down a dark alleyway. Throughout these nine pieces,
song structures mimic traditional forms, but deviate in subtle ways. Chopped, chiming piano tones often stray from rhythm and melody so as to slumber in a
soft bed of resonant drones; instrumental pieces veer into post-rock
repetition, with the plodding piano and vacillating violin wedged in a game of chess, each trying to avoid creative checkmate; meanwhile, songs hung more firmly on structural precedents of verse/chorus/verse still find themselves falling loose and into extended passages awash with iridescent textures and neo-classical hues. Indeed, unlike previous efforts, this marks a notable shift away from conventional instrumentation and composition, into overtly expressive, frictional and dramatic territories; favoring rich textures that modify mood as much as direction.
But it's Frodahl's voice that completes the compositions and makes them whole. "Like s Jewel" sees her bemoan the frustrated yearnings of feeling trapped
and wishing for a new life. Her syrupy voice provides a lovely accompaniment to
the slow, dreamy waltz of cello and mellotron. "Fiction" unreels swift lines and linked strings of notes that very effectively ride the weary scuttle of Frodahl's gorgeous piano; yet, for this moment, her words shine: "There are still lots of days/ Don't you waste them/ Broken-down fairy tales, did they get your part wrong/ The same fiction/ What about here, what about life/ You're all on your own/ Oh you dream dreamer, you story book maker/ I understand."
Other compositions such as "Muted Thunderstorms" and the title track, what
with their organization of instruments from disparate fields, evoke brilliant contrasts of color and subtle shading, skillfully modulated relationships among densities and textures and expertise in spatial placement. After repeated visits, this inventive harmonization of electronic nuances to classical instrumentation in a rock format, produces unusual kinds of mobility and suppleness.
Swaying from gentle plucking to a bowed drift, the bucolic guitar
of "Shirts for Pennies" draws melodic threads through the readily accommodating
percussive fabric, or finds various other means to add weight and mass, further
accentuating this works theme of diversity. Other pieces, namely "Rio Abajo Rio,"
employ a drug-slurred cello and off-kilter piano motif, crafting a feeling of
agoraphobic dread heightened by the hushed tones and the dense weave of the arrangements.
Such attention to textural detail and low-key bravura in the deployment of a
small pool of instruments recorded in a variety of ambiences make Seven Principles
of Leave No Trace a sensuous and moving listening experience.
And while Edison Woods tend to outline the ways in which one tries to
secretly be rid of oneself, as well as to use reflection as a means to avoid
action, unlike so many, they venture a trifle beyond mere description and endeavor
craft a possible path back towards self-actualization. All of which makes Seven
Principles of Leave No Trace an invaluable album.