The reverb-drenched instrumentation and lush arrangements of Brooklynite Julianna Barwick’s sophomore EP, Florine, make for obvious comparisons to baroque pop in the vein of Fleet Foxes or Sufjan Stevens. But such parallels crumble upon closer investigation. For starters, Florine, which consists nearly exclusively of Barwick’s own voice looped through a series of guitar pedals, is far more fragile and refined than Fleet Foxes’ coarse, earthy sound. Moreover, while baroque-poppers like Stevens aspire to exalted expansiveness, Florine is an intensely private work.
A far more apt comparison would be to the Polish modern classical composer Zbigniew Preisner. Preisner’s latest opus, Silence, Night and Dreams, a large-scale vocal work, is strikingly similar to Florine. Both employ subtle, almost minimal orchestration to place the spotlight on ethereal vocals: delicately arcing strings, faraway pianos hinted at more than played, are the barest accompaniments to Barwick’s glacial voice. Both profess deep religious influences: Preisner’s librettos are lifted directly from the Book of Job while Barwick’s textless glossolalia splits the difference between evangelism and Hopelandic. However, while Silence, Night and Dreams is a sweeping, expansive record, Florine is intensely personal: Cloudbank, by far the record’s highlight, is surreally beautiful, but so private and meditative that it defies being shared.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Florine is at its best when it’s at its subtlest. Unsurprisingly, it falters when it’s anything other than pristine. When even the faintest trace of drumming invades the record, as on Choose, the rhythmic suspended animation is disrupted. The omnipresent reverb thickens into a techno-like echo on The Highest, another blunder. Such Top 40 trickery distracts from and even disrupts the album’s ethereal mood: pop is a coarse genre by comparison.
Ultimately, though, to fault Florine on that point is rather pedantic, considering its strengths. Barwick’s angelic voice channels whale song, her textless mantras capture a serene ambience, and her ear for arrangement are far beyond her years. Most impressive, though, is Barwick's relentless inventiveness: Florine is unlike anything you will hear this year.