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Caroline Shaw & Sō Percussion
Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part Daryl Worthington , June 28th, 2021 08:45

Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw joins the New York percussion quartet for a suite of songs melding folk elements with modern composition

Poems are machines made out of words, wrote William Carlos Williams, his point that the way they’re constructed and move is as important as what they actually say. It’s a line of thinking that makes a lot of sense with Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion’s songs on Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part, words and music spinning a net between sign and signified to capture the shape of the gap that separates them.

Sō Percussion specialise in hitting and rattling symphonies from an array of traditional and non-traditional instruments. It’s an approach paralleled in Shaw’s vocals, words becoming surfaces in kaleidoscopic narratives as the songs sprawl out from folky roots into cascading webs of connotation. Sometimes the instrumentation follows Shaw’s words literally, as on ‘Cast the Bells in Sand’, where ringing pulses submerge into muted drums and grainy brass, the music embodying the lyrics’ command. Elsewhere, Sō Percussion break off on tangents, hitting nano crescendos to alter the affect of a single line or dancing around the voice with interlaced rhythms. The juxtapositions stretching words from meanings so new sense can creep into the space.

Shaw cites Canadian poet Anne Carson and James Joyce as influences, and it’s felt in the way these songs move like semiotic slinkies, unfurling with their own peculiar gait, the flux as vital as the moments of fixed clarity. ‘The Flood Is Following Me’ begins with Shaw softly chanting “rhythm begins” over gentle marimba patterns, as though narrating her own song. Switching to subject she recites the title, subtle shifts in each repetition allowing the five words to tumble through different emotional resonances before breaking into a soaring, overlapping choir. Her chillingly sparse interpretation of ABBA’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ meanwhile, sees her delicately placed delivery extract new poignancy from just a few lines of the original’s chorus. Often, Shaw seems transfixed by the sheer beauty of language itself. Intricate phrases undulate over steel drums on the title track, the words’ movement evocative of tilting a bottle back and forth and watching the liquid flow end to end. ‘Long Ago We Counted’ conjures a maelstrom of swaying rhythms, Shaw’s repetition of ‘ago’ and ‘until’ seeming to track the relentless sway of time itself.

There’s no shortage of artists pulling together the worlds of folk influenced songs and modern composition, but the way lyrics and instruments work together to tease at the literal on Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part marks it out. Shaw and Sō Percussion’s songs seem like contraptions pushing at the boundaries of what can easily be conveyed through words and music. These ten tracks delving deep into the beauty of ambiguity and dancing on the periphery of the graspable.