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Helena Deland - From the Series of Songs “Altogether Unaccompanied” Music Album Reviews

Across four short volumes, the Montreal singer-songwriter introduces a lonely and diverse set of songs written with an exceptional eye for melody and texture.

Helena Deland’s From the Series of Songs “Altogether Unaccompanied” bears an unusual title: Exactly what kind of thing is this? And its format is unusual, too. So far, there are four volumes to the “series,” and the most obvious interpretation would be to call it a set of singles. But volumes one and two appeared simultaneously, back in March, as a single EP: two songs on each side, with different covers on the front and back of the sleeve. Now volumes three and four follow a similar conceit, this time with five songs total.

On Spotify, Deland has created a playlist that bundles them all up in a single, album-like package. Somewhat confusingly, both of volume four’s tracks trickled onto the streaming service, and the playlist, in July and August, followed by volume three’s “Lean on You” in September. But that jumbled quality seems inherent to the project. “The songs are to be considered as their own little things,” says Deland, a Montreal singer-songwriter. “They are part of something larger, yes, but they live on their own.”

Despite the name “Altogether Unaccompanied,” these are not for the most part unplugged or acoustic versions. In fact, the set bundles together a set of sounds rarely found under the same roof: Americana-tinged indie rock, yacht pop, folk, woozy synth balladry. “Take It All” is a simmering trip-hop song that steams like rainy pavement in the summer heat; “A Stone Is a Stone,” a waltz, wouldn’t sound out of place on a jukebox sandwiched between Angel Olsen and Cat Power. “Two Queries” is just acoustic guitar and voice, clear as a moonlight revelation: The guitar has the small, thin tone of an answering-machine message, while Deland’s multi-tracked vocals swim in chilly reverb. “Wait, what do you love/About the way/They move around you?” she sings in a breathy vibrato, and then she answers: “They circle you the most.” It could be a song of wonderment—I imagine a diver watching colorful fish swirl—or a reproach to a lover who aspires always to be the center of attention. The second stanza doesn’t clear things up—”Wait, what did you say/About your mom/And how she had to/Get used to/Being alone?”—but her tone is radiant, practically beatific. In 54 words, and less than two minutes, she has spun out a short story that refuses to yield its secrets.

Deland has a knack for sketching in broad strokes, just enough to capture the imagination without filling in too much detail and closing off possibilities. “Claudion,” a gorgeous, billowing synth-pop tune, sounds like it might be about a divorce, but it turns out to be inspired, she says, by taking acid with a friend. What stands out, again and again, is a fundamental tension between desire and ambivalence, tenderness and regret. In “Body Language,” wanting to stay and needing to get out are all tangled up in a kind of quiet desperation; “A Stone Is a Stone” frames mixed feelings about leave-taking in the lilting motion and reverberant guitars of a roadhouse slow dance. “Perfect Weather for a Crime” sounds like it’s about an affair she knows is a bad idea, and it’s positively electrifying: strutting and trembling, nerves jangling with anticipation.

Deland has said that her reluctance to put out a typical long-player is what led to the novel structure of these releases, but all nine songs actually make for a remarkably satisfying album—surprisingly so, given the range of styles. But the mood is pretty uniformly blue, and having top-notch players doesn’t hurt—bassist Jesse Mac Cormack’s agile but understated playing is particularly notable. And the production, handled by Deland and Mac Cormack, also helps everything hang together: The guitars have a delicious sizzle, the drums just the right amount of bite, and the keyboards and reverb soak up empty space like sponges. Her melodies and arrangements are almost unfailingly captivating: Just listen to the way “Lean On You” builds and builds and then unexpectedly slips into a middle section you never saw coming, like a cyclist cresting a hill and discovering the mother of all mountain views. Even when her writing doesn’t quite reach those heights—the melody on “Body Language” is a little more humdrum, the groove less relaxed than simply lackadaisical—the nuance of her voice helps carry things forward. Beneath her often wispy tone, she’s a powerful presence.

“Rise” makes for a gorgeous finale. The acoustic guitar faintly echoes the filliping figures of Nick Drake’s “Which Will”; Deland’s husky lower register recalls Rebecca Gates, just as the song’s skeletal arrangement does Gates’ band the Spinanes. Once again, she’s singing about reluctant farewells, and the song’s central image—two people sharing a bed, the arm’s distance between them narrowing—is drawn in a way that suggests volumes without ever revealing too much. It’s as lovely a song about loneliness as anyone could ask for. “Altogether Unaccompanied” might not quite be right: With Deland’s songs as a companion, solitude becomes its own reward.


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