As a group, Hejira (perhaps named after Joni Mitchell’s finest album) may be a new name to many, but as individuals, they have discreetly permeated a wide range of contemporary British musical terrain. Keyboardist and guitarist Sam Beste is a gifted musician with instinctive feel and has performed with Amy Winehouse and as part of Matthew Herbert’s One Pig project. Drummer Alexis Nunez has been a free-thinking contributor to the London jazz scene, and also played with the short-lived, vastly under-appreciated Golden Silvers.
Another release on Matthew Herbert’s excellent Accidental, Prayer Before Birth shares some common ground with bands such as The Invisible in its considered production, attention to detail and total immersion in sound. The general subtlety of the group’s melodies, the male-female unison vocals and tapestry of gentle electronics that often accompanies them may invoke memories of The xx, but Hejira are much less minimal and more ornate in their approach. The careful and effective layering in their arrangements serves their songs well.
The opening Litmus Test must have been a clear-cut choice of lead single, given its imposing drums and insistent, portentous chorus. It’s a deeply impressive mood piece, caught in a compelling hinterland somewhere between rock, sophisticated ’80s alternative pop (The Cure might possibly be an influence) and contemporary soul. Yet its careful, meticulous sheen doesn’t detract from its innate eeriness and menace. Pinter is grittier still, with an engaging, Radiohead-esque groove and scratchy, abrasive guitar blending effortlessly with a languidly phrased melody. Its bolder, more insistent chorus makes for a pleasing contrast. The accompaniment builds gloriously, all syncopated cymbal crashes, delicate chimes and sustained synth chords, over which a guitar strafes majestically. It all results in a peculiarly opulent clatter, full of intriguing tensions.
This kind of restlessness is not entirely representative of the album, however, as much of Prayer Before Birth consists of an oddly unsettling and lucid calm. The pretty stillness of Fields Of Rooftops seems perhaps to mask a sense of unease. Penny is softer still, a gentle whisper that comes very close to disappearing, whilst In Our Own Time seems primed for ascent, but the band opt for exercising admirable restraint in their dynamics here. Rahel Debebe-Desslegne’s vocals have a mesmerising, haunting quality throughout.
Somewhere between these two worlds sits the slow, initially discomorting grind of Gypsy Of The Soul, in which Alexis Nunez’s intricate auxiliary percussion plays a crucial role. It then shifts almost imperceptibly into a melodically sophisticated chorus that feels more open and less introspective. Powercut seems to follow the opposite trajectory, veering from a delicate, sensitive introduction to something explosive, blinding and intense that brilliantly captures Hejira’s interest in sharp juxtapositions. Perhaps most impressive of all is Time, a subtle, textured piece that feels like a thoroughly designed narrative journey.
Hejira have pulled together something of a musical community around their House Of Dreams studio and Traum gig nights, including the likes of Gwilym Gold, Kwes and the very promising singer Kwabs. This diversity and adventurousness is also captured in the album, which veers from the lush and atmospheric to the dark and reflective. It’s not always an easy listen, and sometimes its sombre mood can be a little alienating, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating, imaginative and authoritative piece of musical architecture.