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Azalia Snail
Avec Amour
True Classical

Azalia Snail has been making her uniquely sweet, viscous, noise-inflected, tempo-bending psychedelia for almost two decades, recording a dozen or so albums between 1990 and 2001 on labels including Funky Mushroom and Dark Beloved Cloud. Now after a five-year break, she's back with a disc on Silver Lake's experimental True Classical Records, a dense haze of swooning vocals and seething synths cut by abrasive swaths of indie guitar mayhem. The music has its share of discordant moments and harsh textures, but somehow these are enveloped in a softening sheen; as Snail sings in the opening track, it is "Heavy mental/ Honeysuckle gentle."

The sounds incorporated into Snail's slow-moving, trippy meditations include both traditional and unusual rock-band instruments. Snail accompanies herself on guitar, keyboards and percussion. She is backed primarily by Gary Ramon (once of the British psyche band Sun Dial), who punctuates her mind-warping soundscapes with bass and drums. Brian Cassels and Peter Wulff add trumpet and sax to a number of the cuts, while Tanya Haden (most likely Petra Haden's sister) plays cello on "Disintegration." The trumpet melody that emerges from tangled guitars and buzzing sax on "Casuarina Trees," along with "Mint Stallion," one of two pure instrumentals, is mesmerizing, pure and dreamlike.

The songs with words are necessarily more like pop, though pop of a loosely-structured and free-spirited sort. Snail's words are elliptical and elusive, hinting at mind states rather than telling stories. "Alcazar," one of the disc's best cuts, seems to be about the limits of materialism, while "Scenescape" extols the virtues of being oneself. There's a lilt and distortion to the music that enlivens these well-worn topics and makes them seem fresh and relevant.

The disc's longest track, "Distintegration," is also a highlight, combining in one mind-changing interval all the things that make Azalia Snail so interesting. The song opens with a slow, percolating electro beat, then weaves in long slow tones of trumpet and saxophone, sometimes together, sometimes in tonal conflict. Snail's ethereal voice drifts in after about a minute, with abstract, koan-like verses. Snail has, at least in the past, used psychedelic drugs to hone her artistic vision, and these words seem to come from an alternate, non-linear reality: "A dent takes its shape, is reversed, then erased/ Developing a sheen like seashells disgraced/ Dissolve and distill till nothing's left/ Little to lose when you consider your theft." The whole thing coalesces into waves of shifting sensation, a miasma of sound shot through with sudden piercing shafts of light.

The final, uncredited track is a cover of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," tripped-out, drum-machine-embellished and wrapped in reverbed haze. Snail finds unexpected mystery in this disco-era song, slowing it down and turning it into a minimalist chant. It's not entirely successful, and certainly not as interesting as her originals, but it does make you consider the song in a new light.

There's a hypnotic quality to these songs, a smooth surface that rests on layers of voice, keyboard tones, brass and saxophones. It is hard to hear the components of any given song as they move in and out of focus, yet they combine in a lithe and nuanced whole.

by Jennifer Kelly

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