Sweeping through the centuries in an otherworldly magnum opus



Josephine Foster

Fire Records/4 stars

Treat yourself to a technology detox: Stop swiping, put down that device and put on the otherworldly music of Josephine Foster instead.

The Colorado-based musician proffers songs which transport you to a pre-Internet world, where her voice, a bird-like trill, takes centre stage in an 18-track, four-part double album.

Faithful Fairy Harmony, her ninth studio release, is a magnum opus showcasing her airborne voice at its most limber, sweeping through the centuries and perching on wherever suits her witchy muse.

Lumped at the start of her noughties career with freak-folk practitioners such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, she is a genre unto herself, out of time and never sounding like anyone now.

The goth-like cousin to the sylph-like Vashti Bunyan and Judee Sill, Foster traverses this song cycle about birth, mortality and transcendence with equal charm and creepiness.

These so-called "ritual prayers, blues laments, vestal hymns and jubilant benedictions", as the press release says, are part of her unique mythos, stitched from her peripatetic interests ranging from nature to the cosmos.

The opening track, Soothsayer Song, is a beautiful awakening, accompanied by dexterous harp, as her voice, singing above the ether, occasionally drops lower and jars the bucolic magic.

"Come all you young children/ Across the world/And see what your fortune portends," she sings prettily at first, before ending on an incredible airless high.

In A Little Song, she chirps innocently enough, repeating the title in various ways.

The piano plinks are warm and close, but they are shadowed by the serpentine wail of a theremin, which hovers far and near.

Such modern accents distinguish her works from retro-Americana excavations. This is not escapism from reality, but an alterna-reality or consciousness that reminds one to pause, breathe and savour.

Marvel at how she switches easily from the vibrant autoharp strums of Benevolent Spring to the pedal-steel country waltz of Force Divine, with god-given grace and confidence.

Belying the relaxed blues balladry of All Pales Next To You is an infatuated heart. "I get carried away.../Off my rocker I do rock," she promises, over a Tex-Mex shuffle and brisk piano tinkering.

This is counterpointed by the melancholy harmonica in Pining Away, in which she sings: "Though a maelstrom makes you leave like a tree/I bend toward thee/A damsel down on bended knee/My knotty heart she bleeds and bleeds."

Sadness and happiness are two sides of the same coin, she appears to say, taking a Janus-like stance and casting an eye to the past and peering towards the future.

In the closing and title track, she blithely interjects the piano dirge with a kazoo, a wheezy instrument that lends levity to this cycle of life, death, tears and, yes, laughter.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2018, with the headline Sweeping through the centuries in an otherworldly magnum opus. Subscribe