Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

The Kid

The new album from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith threatens to be whimsical then becomes something much richer and more powerful.

We’ve largely become accustomed to our ‘lost innocence’ being used as a tool of sincere capitalism, to sell us everything from cola to mobile phones and supermarket bread. But there has long been, at least since the late-60s, a conscious effort in various countercultures to regain our lost selves, to realise an alternative world of innocence and play, to leave the brutalist urban jungle and its values – sex, power, money, respectability, stability – and to get in touch with mother nature. Key to this has been the use of the synthesizer. Despite its antithesis to what many would consider ‘natural’ and ‘pure’, many musicians saw the potential for electronic instruments such as the Buchla Modular Music Easel in unlocking and reprogramming our minds towards a higher state of consciousness. Add to this a bizarre mix of drugs, new age environmental spirituality, and vaguely scientific postulating from all manner of fringe theorists, and you have a heady canon of synthesizer music designed to help shape and mould hybrid tech-utopias.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a musician who is very much a part of this continuum of using synth music as interface to connect digitally augmented landscapes. She grew up in the lush forests and wildlife of Orcas island before moving to Bolinas in California, and a rural view of life has long seeped into Smith’s worldview and creative process. Earlier releases such as Useful Trees (2012) and Cows Will Eat the Weeds (2012) place the workings of nature squarely in tandem with the electronic, with pianos and guitars processed and spliced with the undulating throb and woozy alien timbres of the Buchla. On her 216 breakthrough album Ears (2016), as well as her collaboration with mentor and fellow Buchla enthusiast Suzanne Ciani on Sunergy, you can hear the increasing confidence and the expansion of the new age potential in her synth explorations.

Now with her latest album The Kid, Smith has fully bloomed, from the vague sketching of her earliest work, to a dense style of orchestral concept pop, complete with musings on life, death, and the cognitive journeys we go through from beginning to end. It seems that Smith is not just enchanted by nature, her music aches with a desire to reach some kind of utopian drive to create and build a digitised Gaia – one that mirrors the idea of delicate and synchronous ecosystems that inspired so many new age composers in the 70s and 80s. The opening track here, ‘I Am A Thought’, positively teems with effervescent life lacking in direction or purpose, then next song ‘An Intention’, with its pitch-shifting vocals, hints at the idea of a protean sentience that crackles and morphs according to the external pressures placed on it.

But treading a balance between utopian innocence and outright mawkishness can be tough. There are moments in the first half of The Kid that didn’t impress me much. After the strong opening burst, ‘A Kid’ bursts into sea shanties and child-like pops and whirrs, a kind of whimsical update to the South Sea Idylls presented in The Thin Red Line, while ‘In A World, But Not Of The World’ has the jittery sound of creaking springs and clockwork nursery rhyme melodies that you got from early Múm back in the 90s. It comes across as a wilful tweeness, one of adults trying to remember and portray this time as one of idyllic joy.

From here though, the album is much more accomplished and surefooted, as Smith moves through her concept of the stages of life from childhood to learning, growing, and maturity. Her sounds take on various layers from a variety of instruments with an openness to various forms of world and folk music. In a manner similar to Jon Hassell’s Fourth World… musical efforts, woodblock rhythms and unfamiliar landscapes abound in ‘To Follow and Lead’, while ‘Until I Remember’ has her voice taking on an primitivist breathing chant as mantra. ‘Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am’ recreates the pastoral sounds of the virtual forest, with its simplicity the key as an ambient throb provides a burbling and squelching ground where the modular chirrups of birds sound through a bubbling synth plasma, capturing the immersive depths of being in the heart of nature without having to leave your headspace.

The final section of the album, which articulates the maturing and eventual dissipation of human life, is still full of buoyancy and joy even with the slightly maudlin lyrics that have Smith lamenting on being able to remember her lover’s face long after they’ve passed. On the final tracks, ‘I Will Make Room for You’ and ‘To Feel Your Best’, Smith’s voice is processed, warped, repeated and turned into a blend of synthetic waves and gaseous forms that linger across the album.

There will be those who will point out that that the underlying sentiments at the heart of The Kid, one of a yearning to a form of unmediated, organic, pre-capitalist wholesomeness (something that would resemble something from Avatar), far from being an alternative to our current society is something that these days is intrinsic to modern capitalism. But putting that aside, there are moments in The Kid where Smith’s ability to meld the electronic and the organic into a symbiotic web of sound and music is comforting and soothing, the harshness of modern noise and atonality sublimated into something that provides a balming comfort.

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