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Carmen Villain
Sketch for Winter IX: Perlita Bernie Brooks , March 2nd, 2021 09:24

Carmen Villain's excellent Perlita feels effortless, natural, and inevitable, says Bernie Brooks

This morning, at around 5:00 AM, I took the dog outside. Unbeknownst to me, it had been snowing – it still was. A blanket of the fresh, downy stuff lay on the compacted strata of old snowfall from the past couple of weeks. Big, graceful flakes drifted down in the bright night. I stood there in the quiet stillness for a while. Then, I brought the dog inside and went back to sleep. Later, as I made coffee, I put on Carmen Villain's latest cassette, Perlita, and thought about the snow.

It’s important to note that this isn’t some bullshit I made up for this piece. My ancient dog has dementia, and as a result he’s up a lot during the night, which means my sleep schedule is absolutely jacked. When morning rolls around, I typically feel scoured and wretched. So, I reach for albums that are rich and compelling and unassailably soothing. Perlita always fits the bill.

I’ve lived with this record for a while now, almost a year. The good folks at Geographic North sent it my way around the beginning of lockdown. Since then, it’s properly woven its way into my life in the same way that all of Villain’s work since Infinite Avenue has. For the purposes of this review, however, the story starts with Both Lines Will Be Blue, Villain’s 2019 instrumental LP and the beginning of a new chapter in her career. Gone were the acoustic singer-songwriter jams scattered throughout her previous work. In their place was a new sound, located exactly at the crossroads of dub, ambient, and new age. Gentle but never wimpy, Both Lines Will Be Blue’s percussive elements knock and rattle and echo around its canyon-esque dub space as flute trills and piano melodies laid atop a bed a of field recordings guide the listener here and there. One of my favorite records of that year, and one that has only grown in my estimation over time, the album was unquestionably a breakthrough.

Since then, Villain has tinkered with and expanded upon this mutable aesthetic, releasing an EP of remixes by characters like Jay Glass Dubs and DJ Python, an exceptional and ethereal one-off for Longform Editions, and a rework of an outtake from Infinite Avenue - a track that bridges the old and new.

Villain’s first nearly album-length collection of material since Both Lines Will be BluePerlita is the ninth installment of Geographic North’s Sketch For Winter, a series of cassettes featuring artists’ reflections on the season. (Sidenote: Geographic North is an eminently trustworthy label. Pretty much everything they put out is a treat for the ears and eyes.) Here, she stretches and pulls the fabric of her sound until every individual thread is visible, until it’s barely holding itself together, then lets it drift on the wind. Which is not to say the compositions are insubstantial or directionless. In fact, the opposite is true. This is supremely confident work, evidence of an artist at her prime. Though Perlita contains all the basic elements present in Both Lines Will be Blue, these tracks are much sparer. Villain leans on her mastery of space, content to let less do more, to allow each number to unfold in such a way as to seem natural, inevitable.

Field recordings carry ‘Two Halves Touching’ and ‘Things That Are Solid’. On the former, the sound of waves and voices. On the latter, the chatter of conversation and, perhaps, the sound of water freezing. Eventually, on ‘Two Halves Touching’, a deeply satisfying, submerged bass pulse kicks in along with a flute-like synth line that falls away after a little over a minute, leaving only whispers and periodic thuds. ‘Things That Are Solid’, for its part, morphs into something resembling a hushed sort of industrial music. A simple, looping piano melody lifts ‘Molina’ for nearly its full duration as birds chirp and a spaced-out synth interjects from time to time. ‘Agua Azul’ is one of Villain’s best tracks, full stop. A collaboration with flautist Johanna Scheie Orellana, its mellow backbone of dubbed-out percussion – both woody and metallic – serves as a perfect counterpart to Scheie Orellana’s lovely contributions. It feels effortless.

Villain is Mexican-Norwegian, and Perlita is named for her grandmother who lives in Puebla. But far from evoking January at nineteen degrees latitude, it calls to mind the brilliant low winter sun of the Midwest, the crunch of ice underfoot, the sound of a frozen lake as it expands and contracts and splits, the drip drip drip of icicles. You get the picture. That’s just me, though. That’s my winter. There’s a certain universality here. Such is the nature of this record that, regardless of where you’re from, I expect it will remind you of home.