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Ana Roxanne, "~~~"

cover imageI always love scavenging the internet for interesting end-of-year lists every December, as I invariably find a handful of great albums and films that I slept on like a fool. In fact, a lot of those belated finds wind up being among my favorites, as the albums I miss tend to be inspired and refreshing departures from the labels and scenes that I usually follow. This unusual debut album from LA's Ana Roxanne was one such find from last year, as it surfaced back in March and I probably dismissed it instantly as a vinyl reissue of some private press New Age obscurity (if I noticed it at all). Given both the look of the album and Roxanne's aesthetic, that is not a terribly outlandish conclusion to make, but a closer listen reveals that ~~~ is considerably more compelling and distinctive than it first appears. For example, Roxanne checks two boxes that have historically been strong indicators of a radical compositional approach: she both studied Hindustani singing in India and attended the fabled Mills College. As a result, Roxanne has an unusually sophisticated understanding of harmony and avant-garde compositional techniques for this stylistic milieu. Such a path would normally steer an artist towards an Eastern drone/La Monte Young vein, yet Roxanne deftly sidesteps anything resembling a predictable path, as ~~~ can best be described as what might result if a mermaid studied with Eliane Radigue: drone-based minimalism that evokes a soft-focus idyll of lapping waves and floating, angelic voices.

Leaving Records

For all intents and purposes, ~~~ admittedly does sound a hell of a lot like it could have been the work of some gifted, synth-wielding yoga hermit from the '80s. The fact that it is not, however, is noteworthy: there is nothing about this album or Roxanne's background to suggest that she had any interest in undertaking any sort of homage to that era. More likely, she just independently wound up in a similar place simply by virtue of her similarly meditative and autodidactic bent.In fact, it seems like Roxanne's biggest single influence was probably her own life (with a particular emphasis on her early love of R&B and all the time that she spent in church choirs growing up). That, in essence, is what I most love about this album, as it is all-too-rare these days to encounter art in such a pure, unselfconscious form. At its best, ~~~ sounds like the work of a composer who wants nothing more than to transform her lived experiences into something intimate, poetic, and beautiful. Moreover, Roxanne achieves that in an inventive way that feels both timeless and effortless. She arguably only threatens that perfect, idyllic spell on the rare occasions when the synths blossom into something more prominent and melodic than mere drones. To Roxanne's credit, however, those sparing psych flourishes are almost always effective enough to justify such an out-of-character nod to recognizably "cool" influences.

The opening "Immortality" captures Roxanne in her purest, most undiluted form, as it is essentially just her voice (alternately singing and speaking) over a warm, gently quivering, and blurry bed of drones. It is quite a gorgeous piece, as Roxanne's harmonizing vocals have an angelic quality that calls to mind Julee Cruise's work with Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch (minus all the creepy and seductive overtones and undercurrents). The next two pieces only deepen that sense of dissolving into a quietly rapturous dreamscape, as Roxanne subtly expands her palette in an increasingly layered, immersive, and reality-bending direction."Slowness" is the most "composed" piece on the album, as it lies somewhere between a meditation tape, an exercise in tape-loop experimentation, and a bittersweetly lovely organ piece. The lazily intertwining melodies and warm harmonies of the latter are the best part, but the way that all of the disparate elements come together is quite effective as well (I especially like the ghostly, steadily pulsing synth loop that functions as the piece's backbone). The following "It's a Rainy Day on the Cosmic Shore" is even better still, though it admittedly takes a little while before it fully coheres. Once it does, however, it is an absolutely sublime piece of music, as crashing waves, swelling drones, and fluttering synth melodies combine to evoke a heavenly, hallucinatory beach or magical undersea grotto. Elsewhere, "Nocturne" then returns to the minimalism and swooningly lovely Siren-esque vocals of "Immortality," while "I'm Every Sparkly Woman" approximates a curious collision of deconstructed R&B and radiant, rippling New Age bliss. The album then winds to a close with a remarkably good sound collage that blends together a church chorus, a singing toddler, lapping waves, strains of pop music from a radio, wind chimes, and a group of cheerfully bantering women.

While that final piece ("In a Small Valley") is not my favorite piece on the album, it is a beautiful illustration of one key element makes Roxanne's aesthetic so special and unique: her incredibly effective and intuitively organic use of field recordings.Obviously, using field recordings for texture or surrealist mindfuckery is quite common in contemporary experimental music circles these days, yet Roxanne seems to use them only to vividly evoke specific scenes and all of those scenes seem personally meaningful. As such,~~~ has an abstractly diaristic feel that suggests a languorous, impressionistic flow of poignant memories and allusions to significant moments. That unerring instinct for simple, uncluttered artistic honesty is evident in other ways too, as Roxanne's elegantly blurred and beautiful voice is the true heart of her art, so she is wise to limit her musical accompaniment to little more than subdued drones and looping melody fragments (even if the more fleshed out "Slowness" is a highlight). It is a tricky balance to get just right, which probably explains why ~~~ is such an unusually brief album (it clocks in at under half an hour): Roxanne could have easily padded out the release with some additional drone or synth-driven pieces, but that would have diluted the power and simple beauty of her statement. This is not a unique and beguiling album because Roxanne has an especially bold experimental vision or a knack for killer synth patches—it is a unique and beguiling album because such things are relegated to a mere supporting role as she strives for something deeper, more intimate, and more elusive. When those experimental or hook-sculpting tendencies surface, they are certainly welcome, but the true brilliance of ~~~ is that it captures self-expression in its most distilled and sincere form. This is a hell of a debut.

Samples can be found here.