The Magic Place sounds like it was recorded in a large cathedral and in fact Brooklyn based Juliana Barwick’s layered vocals at times verge into evangelical territory, the kind of heavily reverbed sweeps of pure wordless chorals that evoke a spiritual pursuit. It’s one woman and a loop pedal, and it can alternatively sound like dolphins attempting to communicate with each other, the good bits of Enya (if there are any) and attending church dosed up with horse tranquilisers. It’s beautiful, a lush wall of vocals, often made up of differently pitched wails and melodies in concert with each other.
For much of the album there’s little if any musical accompaniment to these harmonic layers of vocals. Occasionally there’s a hesitant run of piano, or a bass guitar picks through some gentle notes, maybe some synth, yet these are the exception, rather than the rule, because truth be told Barwick fulfils the role of a whole band with simply her own vocals. Not that she’s attempting to. There’s no beat boxing or anything as crass as that, rather Barwick creates a bed of ethereal washes of vocals and then intones new voices into the gap, perhaps altering the pitch or refrain slightly.
In the second half of the album the instruments start to creep out a little more. It’s still sparse, but the presence is more pronounced. Prizewinning is the undoubted highlight here, which begins with a repetitive percussive throb before Barwick builds up some melodies that just float in the air and a rattling kit kicks in, a steady metronomic jangling beat and Barwick’s vocals grow to near hysterical levels. This is the payoff, the reward for an albums worth of restraint and as a result it’s so much sweeter, and much more intense. It’s a strange and beautiful album from a unique voice. Literally.
Bob Baker Fish