Musicians leave bands for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because of some irreconcilable grievance with other members. Sometimes it’s because they’ve grown tired of the kind of music they’ve ended up making. Sometimes they’ve just had enough of the whole business and want to get out of the studio, off the tour bus and into a more comfortable life.
Jocie Adams left Rhode Island folk band The Low Anthem last year after six years with the group, during which time she played on their two most acclaimed albums; her most memorable contribution was the song Wire, a clarinet instrumental that acted as a midway point in the 2011 record Smart Flesh. The motive for her departure is another classic reason: to focus on a solo project.
Arc Iris is in many ways less of solo project than a whole other band, and it’s unlikely that Adams could have created this album without forming a new group around her: there’s simply too much going on here for it to be any other way. And perhaps that’s the real kicker for her leaving The Low Anthem: because she had too many things to say, and too many styles to play, to be anything but the ringmaster of her own band.
“Arc Iris is inspired by ’70s pop, folk and country traditions, cabaret, jazz and classical,” the spiel from her label says. That covers quite a few of the aisles in the music store, but actually tells you very little about what the album sounds like. The 11 tracks are in fact roughly split between the folk/country side and the jazz/cabaret side, and this makes for an album that can at times dazzle with its omnivorous verve, but which also has a tendency to become disjointed.
The first few tracks sound rather like a folk musician finding her feet. Sure, they’re pretty enough, and there are interesting moments: Lost On Me shifts in style and tone, ranging from faintly psychedelic build-ups to lilting string-led lulls. But there’s not quite enough to draw you right in: or maybe there’s just too much – if you find a thread to hold on to it’s quickly torn away from you and replaced by something new. As the album reaches its midpoint, however, the Waitsian jazz of Singing So Sweetly makes the point where it starts to congeal nicely. Its followed by Ditch: mixing doo-wop with slide guitar, and jazz organ with soaring violin, it’s the best consummation of all of Arc Iris’ reference points.
The cocaine blues Powder Train is another highlight. Singing about drugs over a Country and Western accompaniment is hardly the most original thing a musician can do, but here it’s done exceptionally well. “Let it rain, let it rain, cocaine sweet cocaine, as the winter wonderlands often do,” Adams sings, imbuing the song with the sense of a bittersweet Christmas hymn. “How could I be the man they want without my powder train,” she sings a little later, and that word ‘man’ simultaneously intrigues and enhances. Is this a cover version of a song originally by a male artist? Apparently not, but that little gender trick fools you into thinking this might be an older song, and adds a sense of folk tradition.
Tradition is something that appears to weigh heavily on Arc Iris. There’s a fascination with so many facets of musical history that can be heard throughout, from the miniaturised avant-garde song cycle of Honor Of The Rainbows to the lo-fi Might I Deserve To Have A Dream to the straightforward folk elements of the album. That’s a worthy and noble fascination, but it means that Adams’ own voice is buried within these histories with which she plays, and the album exists in an abstract space rather than in an extension of tradition.