A collaboration between the Japanese electronic artist and the Raincoats founding member lands at the natural middle of each musician's sensibilities.
When Phew and Ana da Silva speak to each other on their collaborative record Island, their words have to pierce a thick fog before they can reach their intended recipient. The synthesized drones and stray noises that curl around each woman’s voice threaten to submerge them entirely, and so when the two artists speak, or sing, or speak-sing to each other in the other’s native language—Phew in da Silva’s Portuguese, da Silva in Phew’s Japanese—their words fly like detached missives from a sanctuary under siege. Their communication here does not unfurl as easy conversation (even though one of the songs is titled “Conversation”), but shudders out in fits and starts: a corrupted distress signal. Island is an unsteady record, less interested in closing the gap between its two participants than it is in exploring that gap for all its nooks and crannies. It seeks the productive friction that can sometimes emerge from misunderstanding, alienation, and confusion—the learning and healing that can result from losing one’s bearings.
Since playing in punk bands in the late 1970s and early ’80s (da Silva in the Raincoats, Phew in Aunt Sally), both artists have seized upon the voice as an instrument of provocation. Punk, after all, was mostly about the cynical passion the voice can rouse when compressed into a sneer. But neither the Raincoats nor Aunt Sally settled into the mold set by Ramones or the Sex Pistols, even if they were inspired by them. Teetering on the edge of punk and post-punk, the Raincoats embodied more color and flair than the most famous acts of either adjacent genre, while Aunt Sally folded psychedelic and experimental textures into a freewheeling punk mode. For both bands, punk was a starting point, not an end in itself—the ethos of irreverence mattered more than—and outlasted—a commitment to power chords and yelps. The solo records Phew and da Silva have released in this millennium let their curiosity roam even further from their more structured origins, and Island lands at the natural middle of each musician's sensibilities. Da Silva’s needling percussion and wiry melodies spur on Phew’s voice-curdling miasma. It’s a good fit.
Island’s strongest, climactic track “The fear song” begins with a whisper and a trace of voice that sounds like it’s sampled from someone’s answering machine. A drone buoys the two voices, and then the voices evolve to take the place of more typical instrumentation. The beat feels as if it derives from a clipped syllable, a stutter excised from its context; the percussive effect comes not just from the “k” sound at the start of the fragment, but from the hard line left by its removal. As the drone swells, Phew and da Silva raise the volume of their voices to rise above it. They sing few notes; it’s not the complexity of their melodies that makes their performances compelling, but the striving quality of their delivery, the searching, reaching urgency to their wails. The beat picks up, and both women hasten their words to match it, repeating the same phrase to each other. It sounds as if they were running to each other in pitch darkness, navigating only by the sounds of their voices and their echoes.
Many of the vocal tracks on Island follow a similar structure: A whisper grows into a bellow as the instrumental environment starts closing in. At times, like on “Konichiwa!,” cracks appear in the record’s overall malaise. As a voice—an original recording or maybe a cut-up sample from a Japanese language training program, it’s hard to tell—repeats the title, a low synthesizer uncoils a sour melody. A drum machine beat stutters and sways. But, in patches, the melody sweetens, brightens up, cuts through the haze. The album’s closer, “Dark but bright,” enjoys a similar joviality in its melodic development, the kind of semi-comic synthesizer ornamentation that populated da Silva’s 2005 solo album The Lighthouse. “Dark but bright” even samples birdsong, as if the world inside Island were finally allowing the sun to rise. In these moments, Phew and da Silva sound less like they’re searching for each other and scrabbling for common ground. It’s like the air has cleared, and in the new light, the two musicians can finally greet each other.
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