Ashley Paul, "I Am Fog"
Ten years after her first appearance on Keith Rankin and Seth Graham's perennially bizarre and eclectic Orange Milk label , Paul returns to the fold with her new trio. Naturally, there are plenty of similarities between this latest release and the trio's 2020 debut (Ray), but there has been some significant evolution as well. To my ears, I Am Fog feels considerably more sketchlike and challenging than Ray, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, as anyone seeking out an Ashley Paul album would presumably already have a healthy appreciation for dissonance and deconstruction. A decent analogy might be that Ray is like a short story collection while I Am Fog is more like a series of poems: the voice and vision are instantly recognizable, but these nine pieces are an unusually distilled, minimal, and impressionistic version of that voice. In less abstract terms, that means that I Am Fog again sounds like some kind of unsettling and psychotropic outsider cabaret, but the emphasis is now more upon gnarled/strangled textures and lingering uncomfortable harmonies than it is on melodic hooks and broken, lurching rhythms. In addition to the trio's overall step even further into the outré, the album also features further enticement with one of Paul's strongest "singles" to date ("Shivers").
As a devout fan of Paul's unsettling and singular work, I am intrigued and fascinated by how her vision has evolved since Otto Willberg and Yoni Silver became regular collaborators. While I do miss her prickly, pointillist guitar playing a bit with this album, I quite like how Silver and Willberg provide a somewhat more traditional "jazz trio" foundation for Paul's excursions into the alien and unknown rather than simply following her into increasingly broken and sickly frontiers of strangled dissonance. The opening "A Feeling" is an especially interesting example of that dynamic, as the slow-motion chord progression and male/female vocal harmonies approximate a curdled and unraveling "black lodge" version of Low. My favorite pieces tend to fall on the "creepy and lysergic outsider cabaret" side of the spectrum however. "Escape" is the strongest incarnation of that aesthetic, as it resembles a haunted nursery rhyme recited over an obsessively repeating bass pulse, a broken-sounding martial beat, and sax playing that unpredictably drifts back and forth between a blearily melodic hook and a host of tormented whines and squeaks. It feels like someone accidentally left their childlike whimsy outside and it became partially rotted and macabre overnight.
Elsewhere, the album's other highlight ("Shivers") feels a bit like a torch song or standard, as Paul's lilting vocals fall somewhere in the uncomfortable sweet spot between "lovesick lament" and "I am going to murder you and wear your skin" over an unexpectedly melodic (if spartan) backdrop of double bass, wandering clarinet melodies, and pleasantly clattering, lurching drums. While "Escape" and "Shivers" admittedly feel like they are on a level above the other pieces on the album, I Am Fog's second-tier gems are quite strong as well and there is quite a solid mid-album run of them (though the omnipresent strangled dissonance may be an endurance test for some). For me, the pieces that work best are the ones in which Willberg plays it straight and opts for bass lines that would not feel out of place on a classic Bill Evans album. That said, the appeal of those pieces is simply that they make Paul's excursions into more difficult terrain feel a bit more grounded and digestible. That is certainly a welcome and effective touch (Willberg is a great foil), but Paul's provocatively original and endlessly evolving transcendence of the familiar is still the main draw.