Joanne Pollock – Optimist

by 5:4

It was in 2014 that i first discovered Canadian musician Joanne Pollock, thanks to her superb collaboration with Aaron Funk (Venetian Snares), Poemss. It’s an album i still return to regularly, due to its unique blend of disarmingly naturalistic vocals and sleek but distinctly bedroom pop-type electronica. It’s not a word i’d use often – not much music warrants it these days – but there’s something genuinely charming about it, and it’s a quality that permeates all of Pollock’s solo work as well.

Her 2015 EP Optimist is an excellent example of this, channelled into six songs that (as the title suggests) tentatively demonstrate an up-beat positivity in spite of the fact that the lyrics explore anxiety, uncertainty and regret. These songs are all clearly very personal; the word “I” occurs often, indicating an extensive act of self-reflection and contemplation. This even seems to be the case when the lyrics (as they often do) refer to “you”; there’s little to no sense of a conversation, but a continuation of Pollock’s inwardly directed thoughts, mentally chastising and challenging herself in relation to someone else.

The intensity of the songs is reinforced by a number of things. Many of them convey more or less just a single thought or idea, concentrating their emotional weight. They’re also to a large extent tonally static, tilting and glancing against adjacent harmonies but always remaining fundamentally rooted to the spot. Conventional song structures are freely toyed with, Pollock’s ruminating verses extending slightly to form modest, almost impromptu refrains more than full-bodied choruses. Due to their focus on single ideas a couple of the songs, ‘Back In’ and ‘Words In Reverse’, end abruptly as soon as the thought has been expressed. Conversely, both ‘Might Be Wrong’ and ‘Your String’ devote a third of their length to extended instrumental codas. There’s also a discreet playfulness in the way these structures unfold. ‘Back In’ shifts away after its first refrain, entering a strange obfuscated world of reverb, possibly inhabited by Pollock’s voice (more hinted at than heard) before re-emerging, clearer than ever, for the second verse. During its middle 8, ‘Words In Reverse’ briefly converts its slow pulse into a light triple-metre dance, lending the song a beautiful bittersweetness. But all hints of effervescence are continually countered by the insistence of Pollock’s voice, grounded, at times almost stern, just occasionally (as at the close of ‘Words In Reverse’) transcendent and impassioned. This comes to the fore in the final track, ‘Wish I Knew’, where beats are absent, everything focused on Pollock’s steady, slightly wistful and mournful delivery.

In terms of both style and content, these songs are rather like variations on a theme, broadly articulated via slow tempos with drawn-out melodies while the beats busily convulse and convolute below, Pollock’s timbres evoking old-school synths and drum machines. Fashioned from these six exquisite, equal parts rough and polished gems, Optimist is an wonderfully intimate exploration of doubts, fears and hopes expressed with a light touch and a great deal of subtlety and authenticity.

Optimist is available as a free download from Pollock’s Bandcamp site, where you can also find her debut EP, December, and a smattering of other songs, also available free. All of the lyrics can be found on Pollock’s website.

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