Music Reviews
Oh Holy Molar

Felix Oh Holy Molar

(Kranky) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

When I think of Kranky Records, I think of artists producing the sort of moody ambient soundscapes that dwell in the liminal spaces of the mind. Although perhaps best known for releasing music by the monolithic Godspeed You! Black Emperor, in recent years, the label’s most cherished releases are the intimate and ethereal drones of Tim Hecker, Grouper, and Stars of the Lid. Felix, on the other hand, is something of a departure.

Perhaps Felix’s minimalistic piano and FX-laden guitar arrangements might be expected to resemble another Kranky band, say, last year’s self-titled A Winged Victory for the Sullen album; however, Lucinda Chua is actually first and foremost a songwriter’s songwriter – your attention is primarily on her lyrics. Still, there’s a connection – her Modernist-influenced poetry has a way of slowly building feelings that aligns her with her label-mates’ sustained atmospheric compositions, on a lyrical level as much as musically. She puts as much detail and consideration into maintaining the mood of her lyrics as the most skilled of her soundscaping peers.

What makes Oh Holy Molar excellent is how every single line commands attention. Chua never tackles her subjects head-on; instead her songs collect scattered feelings, memories, and images, often returning to the titular “holy molar” (a lost tooth strung into a pendant). There are several quotable lines in every song, but the songs only make sense as a whole when the fragments distil into one bigger picture, as each lyric is vivid but structurally meandering. In short, she has a remarkable gift for capturing the elusive patterns of contemplation, in all of their illogical obliqueness.

She begins the record with the self-depreciation of The Bells, as Chua clumsily asks "How do you know about all this stuff? / How did I not know you when you lived in Shepherds’ Bush?", and with a shrewd irony bemoans that "All of my songs are now dumb, dumb, dumb" – at once it’s a self-aware comment on the absurdity of songwriting, and genuine self-effacement. Pretty Girls is another standout, dropping the pretence of insight on the final line: "And all I want to do is get him so drunk that he can’t talk…" However, the extended metaphor of Little Biscuit is very weak (yes, it’s about a biscuit); it’s a really disappointing closer.

But perhaps it’s the arrangements that incline me to interpret this as a very inward-looking album. For the most part, the songs are structured around two-chord piano patterns, with glimmers of guitar and percussion chiming in ever so unobtrusively alongside, and the feel of meditation is enhanced by this restraint. Drummer Neil Turpin (who tours with Yann Tiersen) often doesn’t so much keep time as modestly allow the moods to swell, while Chris Summerlin exercises a masterful subtlety, significantly dropping the volume from his recent excursions in his excellent noisy drone band Kogumaza. There are also some gorgeous string parts; Blessing Part I begins with Chua’s one-note piano pedal but the strings at the end are quietly spellbinding, before Part II brings in a Kurt Vonnegut-referencing choir.

Oh Holy Molar is more minimal and so isn’t as immediate as their brilliant (and underappreciated) debut You Are The One I Pick, but it’s perhaps more focused and singularly effective. Because it’s so unassuming, it will take a while to sink in, but when it does, you’ll find that this is a record to really fall in love with.