Essay by Dan Johnson
Even if, in addition to writing, playing and singing his own material, Jodie Landau had not brought on board an established producer, three other L.A.-based composers, six chamber musicians, and an entire Icelandic women’s chorus, you of all things would still be a most unusual debut.
For one thing, Landau’s voice is a most unusual instrument. At once raw and exposed, pure and unerringly precise, his vocals are able to veer between choirboy cantillation, torch-singer croon, and full-throated bellow without losing a character that is unmistakably his own. And his compositional aesthetic—which manages to encompass both the unpretentious bounce of popular song and moments of ominous stasis, setting his own, emotionally intimate lyrics or penning purely instrumental interludes—demands that elasticity.
His other instruments are a little out of the ordinary, as well: in addition to singing, Landau beats and bows on a small battery of percussion instruments. But as a vocalist, a composer, and as a percussionist, Landau insinuates himself effortlessly into every layer of music-making on the album. The truly remarkable thing about this project is how naturally Landau brings together the large circle of collaborators responsible for making this album happen. Simply put, Jodie Landau plays well with others.
The genesis of this project came when Landau first heard that Icelandic women’s choir, Graduale Nobili, perform in Los Angeles as part of Björk’s Biophilia project. Astonished by their technical range, he immediately wanted to collaborate, and after the opportunity arose to forge a personal connection with members of the ensemble, he began the push to create a recording that would take advantage of their unique sound. In practice, that means we hear a chorus offering everything from high-lying, angelic harmonies to percussive vocal effects reminiscent of Balinese monkey-chant.
Landau found the rest of his collaborators a good deal closer to home, among the musical family he has cultivated within the Los Angeles new-music scene. wild Up, a rising young new-music ensemble led by Christopher Rountree—who conducts here —has a long association with the singer/composer, and like Graduale Nobili, provide both accompanimental textures and moments of their own highly exposed virtuosity, to the extent that if one takes the album as a whole, there is not so much the sense that any one of these elements is working in service of any other, as that they are all organically interdependent and interconnected systems essential to a single sound-world.
Each performing unit, in turn, might seem to be the logical outgrowth of any of the others, thanks in part to the cunningly idiomatic writing of these composers—not just Jodie Landau, but also his and wild Up’s fellow Angelenos Ellen Reid, Marc Lowenstein, and Andrew Tholl—which allows the vocals and instruments to blur into each other, so that the sound of the choir seems to effloresce from the sound of the instruments one moment, from Landau’s voice the next, and in the moment after that suddenly become the musical point of focus.
But each composer also exercises a radically different style. Tholl’s memory draws the map we follow is a series of inexorable, emotionally fraught cycles; Reid’s Orlando & Tiresias is a severe, quasi-operatic dialogue between chorus and soloist; This, by Lowenstein, is a sprawling, mystical rumination. Each guides the energy of these performers in another direction from Landau’s compositions, and from each other.
Once the list of collaborators was in place, the sessions were rehearsed, performed, and recorded—by producer/composer Valgeir Sigurðsson with Paul Evans —in a week and a half, on a largely crowdfunded budget. The scores demand a certain spontaneity from the performers, and that spontaneity is reflected in a recording that captures the whirlwind energy of these sessions, without sacrificing clarity, quality or color of sound. The resulting album offers us a glimpse of a wild, chimerical beast, caught in action for the first time, but never quite tamed.