Music Reviews
The Magic Place

Julianna Barwick The Magic Place

(Asthmatic Kitty) Rating - 8/10

If we think about it long enough, images begin to conjure our most heartfelt memories. Whether it’s a childhood anecdote, a lovely night out, or an achievement worth remembering, the things and places that matter are always there to remind you of the past; that sweet, beautiful past. For Louisiana-bred Julianna Barwick, it was a protuberant tree, the kind you always read about in fairy tale books but never really get to stumble upon. She describes it as a magic place, one with “different rooms, and you could actually lay in the branches”.

Julianna Barwick creates the kind of music that offsets any discernible genre. Even if she’s blended in the independent music puree, her celestial voice resonates with the likes of Renaissance composer William Byrd and the polyphonic mass choirs of Alessandro Striggio. But in spirit, she’s a holy minimalist – her harmonic simplicity has the sensibilities of notable a-cappella pieces composed by Arvo Part and John Tavener. Though Barwick won’t turn into an Orthodox any time soon, she compels with the power of her angelic intonation, looping multitracked voices to level distinct notes. Some might even find it too prickly and schmaltzy, like undergoing a theta wave meditation with the mass-produced, sound therapy discs Dr. Jeffrey Thompson sells.

So in a way, The Magic Place may seem pointless to those who believe popular music shouldn’t equate with historically rich classicism. This is the kind of music that only sinks in with time and patience – if you observe a few videos of Barwick’s live performances, you’ll notice the awkwardness of employing a majestic experience in a club-like environment. It’s difficult enough to retain the attention of the public, especially when a wash of pre-recorded vocals disappear when she presses the stop button every time a piece ends. The repeat cycle of loop, build-up, and silence just doesn’t translate as it should. This music has to be experienced in the comfort of your desired space, undisturbed and without any enforced pause.

Barwick may have earned the title one-woman choir, but that’s nothing to scoff at. And even with the abundance of bedroom recorders, there isn’t anyone else courageously attempting to recreate a theater-like experience with so little resources. Envelop serves as a fitting opening thesis to understand the evolution she’s taken, one that won’t seem as readily apparent if not listened to with the most careful attention. She does cross familiar territory with what she does best: beatific voices float about with lightheaded piano keys outlining the distance ahead. Immediately, thoughts of Person Pitch cross a plenty who’ve experienced Noah Lennox’s unresponsive journey. But this is a stouter, more expansive sound: Keep Up the Good Work and The Magic Place entice with rousing, interlocking vocals, manipulating a cloud of reverberating vocals with subtle drone effects in the background. As this double entrée ends, Barwick concludes her mantra with her sole voice pulled into the forefront with utmost poise.

Whereas Sanguine was a strictly choral experience with a few whimsical sonic experiments, The Magic Place maintains a welcome consistency throughout its forty-three minutes. Barwick is fully embracing the concept of creating an album experience, an exercise she began to put forth with the release of Florine EP. It’s a much sterner piece of work. It can also be difficult to endure at times: though White Flag brings to mind a nice picture of a snowy exterior, the chirring calls make me think of unsettling elves. Vow also features a faint percussion in the background, but the crystalline sonic swirls recur like the plodding nothingness of Sigur Ros’ ( ). But this departing is also a blessing: Bob in your Gait is truly outstanding – Barwick’s muscular echoes are in full force, surging with the movement of a crescendoing piano and scratching acoustic repetitions. Prizewinning almost ends the facilities with a celebration. It’s the long awaited freeing of Barwick’s intimate side – it starts cool enough with a muted reggae tinge, pulsing the constant beat until exploding into confetti of cadenced drums and clanging improvisations.

The Magic Place is a graceful endeavor in harmonizing traditional choral techniques with more explorative abstractions. Conversely, she’s well aware that such an effort is underscored by what she’s learned from the minimalist greats of yore. But this is strictly a work of intuition – Barwick’s sample-based arrangements never sound neither mechanical nor emotionless. It’s filled with memorable moments, digital pieces that are essential towards captivating very human moments without battering with the greater scope of things. It all makes this all-encompassing memory trip worth remembering.