On ‘The Other Side,’ Adaya successfully reimagines folk music through the bright window of intelligent songcraft and genuinely experimental arrangements. It is an intensely varied and often mesmerising release from a unique voice.
‘In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.’ So said Graham Greene, who moved to the shores of Lake Geneva to live out the last years of his life. And the country has been haunted by that reputation ever since. It is the place of cowbells and sterile bureaucracy where people go to die. It is not a place where things are created, but where they end. Certainly not a hotbed of mind-frazzling psychedelic folk music. Well, the new album from Swiss-based songwriter Adaya looks set to put that admittedly dubious theory to the sword.
Of course, if you dig a little deeper, Switzerland has had its fair share of culturally historical moments. The Dada movement, which revolutionised modern art, was born in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. And indeed there is something Dadaesque in the approach of Adaya Lancha Bairacli and her band. It’s all down to the group’s internationalism, its inclusivity, its willingness to appropriate divergent cultural reference points. Adaya, who sings, writes, and plays all manner of instruments, is joined by a motley cast of sidekicks including Aaron Goldsmith (responsible for all kinds of bass, from the guitarron to the sitar bass via the bass harmonica) and American electric guitar ace Buck Curran, on whose label Obsolete Recordings The Other Side is released.
The album springs into life in a literal way with I Am Born, a mission statement of free-spiritedness and inquisitiveness built on a banjo backdrop straight out of Appalachia. But this is no simple slice of Americana. Counter-currents of sitar and violin meet in a whirlpool of influences, and Frederik Rechsteiner’s drums underpin the maximalist folk-rock clatter. Human Race is even more kinetic, the drums a swift shuffle and the wordless group vocal of the chorus a quick reminder of the diversity and democracy of the group. Once again the violin plays a major part, this time trading places with the restrained electric guitar, and there is the added spice of trumpet, lending an almost mariachi feeling to the instrumental section it graces.
Train To Nowhere slows it down and ups the atmosphere, giving more space to Adaya’s accomplished singing, which is not folky in the traditional sense. Rather her singing comes across as a beguiling mix of expressive country-soul and breathy jazz singer. Take away the folk instrumentation, squint a bit, and you can even hear traces of trip-hop in the controlled emotion of her voice. Time Not Long Ago is more explicitly trippy: celtic festival-folk, steeped in the sound of bouzouki and the smell of incense. Ghost is even stranger, and more impressive, like a spooked Balkan Cabaret, a singing saw wailing over the top like the spectre of the song’s title.
The band’s debt to the Celtic folk-rock of bands like Mellow Candle is made explicit in songs like Irish Sea, a bustling singalong and a paean to the travelling life of a folk musician. Galway River explores the theme at greater length, a romantic narrative celebrating the busking life. But as is often the case in folk music there is a bittersweet twist to the song, an element of darkness and mystery. This sense of mystery, in fact, pervades the entire album, even at its most optimistic moments, of which there are many. As a result, the songs are romantic and winsome without ever being overblown or saccharine.
That darkness and mystery reaches its zenith on Werewolf, which begins with a spare banjo, but becomes a full-band meditation on power and femininity, like a Stevie Nicks ballad performed by Laura Marling, and Curran’s ambient stabs of guitar bring in yet another dimension. Story Of A Dream keeps the strangeness up, passing by on a buzzing drone (presumably played on the shrutibox), like an Indian raga, which allows the full expressive power of Adaya’s voice to reveal itself. Instrumental Moon And The Sun once again sees Curran’s stretched out guitar notes to the fore, a counterpoint to the melodic bouzouki. Moon And The Sun acts as a kind of gentle introduction to the powerful, rhythmically driving percussive stomp of The Eclipse. Circular patterns of guitar and violin are woven in and out of the song with enviable dexterity, while the drums pound and splash. This is a decidedly modern and unusual take on the well-worn genre of psych folk.
Musically, Follow Me takes inspiration once again from Irish folk, particularly Johnny Moynihan’s groundbreaking work with Sweeney’s Men. But any influences here are only ever starting points from which new ideas can be explored, in this particular case with unflappable percussion and singing that is both persuasive and ethereal. But the album’s real surprise is its final track, Avalon, a slowly unfolding, meditative piece played by Adaya on piano, with the singing saw once again making its incomparable spooky sounds over the top of proceedings. The notion of folk music is pushed to an almost invisible distance here. Instead, the probing, pretty piano sounds almost improvisational, like Chopin if he had known about jazz, riffing off the nature of loss and legend. ‘Enchanting’ is an overused word, so much so that it has lost much of its meaning, but Avalon is a truly enchanting musical creation, a beguiling and dreamlike mix of almost primitive innocence and sophisticated musicianship. It flickers and wavers in the mind’s ear long after its last bars have faded out.
The Other Side’s title speaks of journeys, of transcendence, of being able to see the world from different perspectives, and even of the mystery of the afterlife. All of these themes are explored on an album that successfully reimagines folk music through the bright window of intelligent songcraft and genuinely experimental arrangements. Adaya courts her influences gleefully, but her wanderlust is such that she never hangs around long enough to see them become sterile. The album is essentially about moving forward, both personally and musically. It is an intensely varied and often mesmerising release from a unique voice.
The Other Side is out now on Obsolete Recordings
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Photo Credit: Daria Marchik