Release Date 02/17/2017
(Paradise of Bachelors)
The new album by the ever-evolving project of Jaime Fennelly is his most ambitious and spellbinding set of roiling, meditative recordings to date, and the first to supplement his foundational arsenal of Indian pedal harmonium, analog synthesizers, and incantatory voices with a full ensemble, including Janet Beveridge Bean (Eleventh Dream Day), Jim Becker (Califone), Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux), and Jon Mueller (Death Blues). Undying Color braids folk and formal, praise and play, within its heady swells and troughs, invoking American vernacular musical traditions and pulsating avant-garde electronics alike. With prayerful patience and ceremonial gravity, it conjures and celebrates the cyclical rhythms of nature: tidal surges, human breathing, cicadas in the wilderness gloaming.
“The snow is melting into music.”
– John Muir (1938)
The Driftless region of Southwestern Wisconsin is a geological anomaly, a deeply carved riverine landscape untouched by glacial drift, its soil and topography remaining as a result entirely distinct from its surroundings. It was here, in a cabin on Red Clover Ranch, about twenty miles east of the Mississippi River, that Jaime Fennelly spent two solitary weeks spanning the winter solstice and the turning of 2016 recording the harmonium and synthesizer tracks that comprise the skeleton of the bracing new Mind Over Mirrors album Undying Color, his sixth and most accomplished full-length to date under that sobriquet. Although the album was fleshed out considerably in the spring with overdubs by other players at Chicago’s MINBAL studio—deftly assisted by recording and mixing engineer Cooper Crain of Bitchin’ Bajas—the Driftless proved an apt, even osmotic, origin for this set of compositions. With prayerful patience and ceremonial gravity, these seven extraordinary songs conjure and celebrate the cyclical rhythms of nature: tidal surges, human breathing, cicadas in the wilderness gloaming. The record’s forty-five minutes uncannily subsume listeners within an enveloping sensation of primeval remoteness, the heady wonder and instinctual trepidation of sleeping alone beneath the stars.
The immersive soundworld that saturates Undying Color elides the physical and the metaphysical. To wit, twelve-minute centerpiece “Gravity Wake,” commandingly sung by Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux, Jackie Lynn) and Janet Beveridge Bean (Eleventh Dream Day, Freakwater), is likely the eeriest and most sensual paean to Einstein’s theory of general relativity ever composed. And the album itself, following its punning title that substitutes “dying” for “dyeing,” is dedicated to Fennelly’s recently departed uncle, as if the transmutations of color into cloth analogize the potential transmutations of death into music. Belying the freezing winter weather from which it emerged, Undying Color glows with warmth, untouched by the iciness associated with so much music nominally categorized along the vectors of electronic music, ambient, or drone—inadequate taxa to describe this most recent transmutation of the ever-evolving Mind Over Mirrors praxis. Despite the academic and abstract valences, Mind Over Mirrors has always been body music. In live performance, Jaime’s feet are constantly pumping his harmonium’s pedals, emphasizing the music’s essential corporeality (in the sense of Harry Partch’s designation of “corporeal music.”) With Undying Color, more bodies bring a corresponding increase in heat.
While the project emerged in 2007 along a decidedly solo axis, following the dissolution of Fennelly’s prior group Peeesseye (with guitarist and fellow PoB artist Chris Forsyth and drummer/visual artist Fritz Welch), Mind Over Mirrors now resembles a band, or a constellation. In addition to the role Crain plays in making this Mind Over Mirrors’ most ambitious and spellbinding set of roiling, meditative recordings yet, Undying Color is also the first to supplement Fennelly’s foundational arsenal of Indian pedal harmonium and Oberheim synths with a full ensemble of players, including Jim Becker (fiddle; Califone, Iron and Wine) and Jon Mueller (drums, percussion; Death Blues, Volcano Choir). Fohr—who also contributed to antecedent album The Voice Calling(2015)—returns as a featured vocalist and lyricist, her incantatory vocals serving as foil to the more placid, honeyed lull of Bean. The potent combination of both singers on several songs recalls a fantasy duet between Catherine Ribeiro and Julee Cruise.
Beyond the incorporation of new textures and timbres into more complex arrangements, the revelation is a hypnotic new foregrounding of rhythm: the steady, stately throb of the concert bass drum on “Gravity Wake” and “Gray Clearer”; the helical sawing of fiddle strings that lends urgency to “Restore & Slip” and “Glossolaliac”; the rhythmic harmonium filtering that summons a choir of synthetic crickets atop “To the Edges”; and the electronically simulated harmonium brushwork of “600 Miles Around,” the album’s melancholy, elliptical coda. The absence of sharp percussive punctuation on “Splintering,” which features Mike Weis’ singing bowls in lieu of drums, imparts a conspicuously contrasting driftlessness, a feeling of ropes pulling against the moorings of rhythm.
Undying Color also asserts the interwoven formal and folk aspects of Mind Over Mirrors more dramatically than ever before. This sense of simultaneity, of braided vernacular and academic musical traditions, recalls Henry Flynt’s fusion of Appalachian music with avant-garde tactics, aligning Fennelly with other iconoclastic American composers like Charles Ives and Moondog known for similarly syncretic methods. Jaime specifically cites the Mississippi Hill Country fife and drum music of Otha Turner and the rhythmic mouth organ music of the Apatani of Northeastern India as influences on Undying Color (most directly noticeable in the syncopated, baritone snare drum-fueled rush of “Restore & Slip” and the harmonium exhalations of “Gray Clearer,” respectively.) Both vernacular instrumental traditions are linked through breathing to the bellows of the harmonium, still the foundation of Mind Over Mirrors’ sonic palette (its undying color). The persistent choice of the humble harmonium—a 19th-century pump and pedal-operated reed keyboard instrument that once featured prominently in North Indian and European classical and religious canons as well as the vernacular music of Scandinavia, the American South, and seagoing vessels—is significant for its historical, cultural, and folkloric associations (its human dimensions) as much the self-imposed compositional or technological limitations. Here it assumes a durational, devotional centrality, reconciling electronic and acoustic compositional elements in dynamic equilibrium, and tethering them in turn to the elements of air and earth.
What naturalist John Muir described in his journal as the sound of snow melting into music is the sound of a state change and motion: ice transforming into rivulets of water, moving toward creek, river, and finally to sea. The ancient Driftless terroir of Undying Color likewise contains evidence of Mind Over Mirrors’ enduring colorfastness in the midst of state change, from fixity to flux, maintaining clarity through change.