Songs of wonder and wandering



Shannon Lay

Sub Pop

4 stars

This is a month of sticky sweat, hot flares and, as of now, swathes of Amazonian forests on fire.

The sun is at the peak of its powers, which is good and bad, and one can either bask in its munificent spell or just perish.

For Los Angeles-based singer Shannon Lay, August is a time of dare, change and wholehearted commitment.

It was in August 2017 when she decided to quit her day job at Squaresville, a vintage clothing store, to become a full-time musician.

There is levity, an air of freedom, which infuses these songs of wonder and wandering. The 12 tracks on August were written on tour for her acclaimed second album, Living Water, in 2017.

They each clock at about the three-minute mark, which means the whole album breezes past at a zippy 31 minutes.

This lightness of feet can be attributed to producer and musician Ty Segall. Whereas Lay's last album feels timeless, Segall has stirred things up here, in subtly unexpected ways.

Lay's mystical folk confessions do not inhabit a cocoon of their own anymore, but rather, they are in search of El Dorado, or some kind of human connection. They sound open and ready, come what may.

"Open the doors that you cannot," she croons in the title track, her airy voice floating above hypnotic finger-picking, a serpentine drone and gently galloping percussion.

This is followed by Sea Came To Shore, as a fluid guitar plays footsie with a restless violin darting around like a dragonfly. "You must find your own way, outside of time," she sings, her voice outlining an ever vanishing shoreline.

Lay quests and questions. In Sunday Sundown, over softly insistent guitar riffs, she beseeches: "Trust me/Love is hard to find," she chants, "with the shadows of your mind telling you otherwise."

Uninterested in precepts, she charts her own path while acknowledging the wisdom of predecessors. Such is the case with her update of Something On Your Mind, a 1971 song by folk iconoclast Karen Dalton.

"Didn't you see, you can't make it without ever even trying?" she sings, keeping the sparse arrangement, but sounding brisk and imperturbable in the face of challenges.

This is immediately counterpointed by Unconditional, a bluesy, hard-knocks confessional. "They'll take all they want and they'll give nothing back to you," she warns, her voice vulnerable and steely, in sync with the guitar, which goes quiet, then probes and gets louder.

She drives home the point with a casual afterthought, "It's true" - an emphatic touch to steel the heart, rather than break it.

In embracing unlovely truths, she seeks existential meaning, not least the realisation that all sentient beings will die.

The subject of opening track Death Up Close faces mortality head-on. "I cannot feel your breath," she sings, but her message rings true: Life is happiness and sadness and, when you accept that, you can live life to the fullest.

The song begins with a false stop-start, before morphing half-way into a psych-folk celebration as a saxophone insinuates itself into it.

It is an intruder taking the mickey out of the seriousness and a reminder of the joy you already have.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2019, with the headline 'Songs of wonder and wandering'. Print Edition | Subscribe