Switched On – Mary Lattimore: Silver Ladders (Ghostly International)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The harpist Mary Lattimore has been busy in the two years since her last album release, Hundreds Of Days, with a good deal of touring and a remix package from that long player featuring work from Julianna Barwick and Jónsi among others.

For Silver Ladders she decamped from her Los Angeles home to the studio of Slowdive and Mojave 3 lynchpin Neil Halstead near Newquay, in Cornwall, working with him in sessions over an intense recording period of nine days.

What’s the music like?

Rather magical. The very different starting points of Lattimore and her producer are ideal, for the twinkling colours of the harp find their ideal match in Halstead’s very subtle guitar and studio work.

The harp remains the most prominent instrument and sets the tone with the beautifully poised Pine Trees, Lattimore’s silvery colours punctuated with pinpricks of intensity.

The album unfolds over seven tracks, with the centrepiece Til A Mermaid Drags You Under. This substantial piece of work begins in the lower register of the harp but gradually takes flight, the upper register adding wider perspectives and a twinkling edge. Halstead’s production touches reinforce the bass with sonorous notes and boost the reverberation, the listener given a sound picture akin to hovering over a vast bay.

Don’t Look is another extended meditation, Lattimore exploring the deep twang of a string in the harp’s lower register but with dreamy guitar from Halstead. The producer also provides thoughtful counterpoint to Sometimes He’s In My Dreams, then murmuring electronics to Chop on the Climbout, Lattimore’s harp flickering in the half light.

The closing Thirty Tulips is particularly beautiful, shifting phases and gently undulating, with a range of different sounds from the harp and broader electronic notes in the background.

Does it all work?

Yes, and repeated hearings only enhance the positive experience this album can bring. For an extra dimension, try the visual score accompaniment by Rachael Pony Cassells, which adds a further layer of enchantment to this already beautiful music:

Is it recommended?

With no hesitation. In these rather fraught times the subtleness of music like this can work wonders – though that’s not to say Mary Lattimore is without expression or imagination. Silver Ladders evokes starry ripples on the nocturnal waters with effortless ease, the listener borne away on the waves.

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Switched On – Julianna Barwick: Healing Is A Miracle (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Julianna Barwick has enjoyed a near-constant stream of productivity in the last decade, but for many reasons Healing Is A Miracle feels like a defining moment. Apart from being her first album for the Ninja Tune family it marks the point where, after 16 years, she moves from East Coast to West, from New York to Los Angeles.

The title is a reference to the ability of the human body to recover itself after sustaining damage, Barwick marvelling at the way cuts and bruises heal themselves – and it appears to be a metaphor for the next stage of her life too. The recording methodology was also different, using monitors instead of headphones for the first time, which proved a revelation.

Healing Is A Miracle includes three collaborations, each with a close friend.

What’s the music like?

Barwick makes some of the most emotive ambient music you can imagine. While some producers opt for the distanced approach, allowing their music all the room it needs to operate away from human contact, Healing Is A Miracle offers further evidence of a rare ability to make ambient music right from the heart.

Despite the intimacy she achieves with the vocal material in particular, her studies in reverberation have resulted in enormous, cathedral-like textures. Inspirit, the first track on the album, is a softly recurring chant but with a big, surrounding echo, and when Barwick adds the bass sounds to the mix the music stops you in your tracks with its heart stopping beauty.

The collaborations are really nicely judged. Jónsi’s voice works in close harmony with Barwick on In Light, the Sigur Rós vocalist just below the melody but closely matched, before the big beats open the music outwards, seemingly toward the stars. Oh, Memory has a greater delicacy in the company of Mary Lattimore, its weightless vocals hanging on the wind, while Nod, with Nosaj Thing, builds layers on a breathy loop before adding beats, after which it pans out again to a consoling coda.

The title track has long, sustained keyboard sounds that hang on just a bit longer than the vocals, giving an even greater feeling of space. Flowers has striking sonorities, scaling mountainous heights but with an earthbound bass presence too, which grows to take over the track completely.

Does it all work?

Yes. With Julianna Barwick the listener really does inhabit a whole new world, and if escapism or mental clarity is what you are searching for then you have definitely come to the right place.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. Even within the output of one of the most consistent ambient artists, Healing Is A Miracle is a touchstone, an album where everything falls into its natural place. For an emotive out of body experience, you would really struggle to do better.