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On her third, highest-profile release to date — her first truly “full-length” outing after an album and an EP which both clocked in under 25 minutes — sound sculptor Julianna Barwick continues to explore and subtly refine the techniques that made her earlier work so utterly singular and transcendent. Barwick’s methods are simple and seemingly straightforward: her music consists of her vocals — looped and layered, layered and looped, to a sometimes dizzying degree, and swaddled in cavernous, mist-making reverb — and generally little else. So it can be difficult to account for the immensely captivating, evocative potency of the results. Perhaps it relates to her ability to craft something fundamentally new and unique out of the oldest, most elemental musical sound imaginable; transforming the human voice into something abstracted, even alien, without erasing its humanity. The Magic Place enhances that effect by giving her music its clearest, most sonically vibrant presentation yet, these recordings are still necessarily hazy, but they make Barwick’s voice(s) sound purer and clearer than ever before, especially in the moments when she allows one particular vocal line to shine through the heavenly thicket. The album also finds her augmenting her one-woman choir with an unprecedented amount of instrumentation, an expanded color palette to accompany the expanding size of her musical canvas. Especially in its first half — as if to emphasize upfront that the vocals are still far and away the focal point — the instruments often don’t emerge until several minutes of a cappella development, and when they do, they’re relatively minimal: there’s a warm synth drone on the aptly named “Envelop,” and a marvelously integrated, barely perceptible church organ submerged beneath the vocal swells of rapturous highlight “White Flag.” The instrumentation, always treated with the same suffusive, softening reverb as the vocals, grows more pronounced as the album progresses — persistently plinky piano and a hint of accordion underscore the lilting “Vow”; “Prizewinning” emerges from a spare bass pulse and builds toward a clattering, martial percussion cadence; “Bob in Your Gait” opens instrumentally and offers a rare departure from the looped/layered approach with its more straightforward (if still lavishly echo-laden) singing, and the gentle, vaguely folky “Flown” closes the album with a bit of ringing, Harold Budd-like piano. Impressively, these myriad accretions manage to complement the fragile glory of Barwick’s inimitable choral effects while never overshadowing or diminishing them. Her music may have vaguely discernible precedents in minimalism, new age, and Eno’s ambient works, and a few tangential contemporary peers including Grouper and How to Dress Well, but her sound has a comfortingly homespun, unfussy quality, and a patient, uplifting serenity, that remain uniquely her own.
Ambient, Dream, Drone, Electronic