An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Ba Ba Bing Records
Cassandra Jenkins released her début ep, appropriately called EP, in April 2013. Over the past eight years, she’s created an oeuvre based in the singer/songwriter vein, but she has always been too restless and curious to be simply a girl and a guitar (see, for example, her 2015 cover of Cat Stevens’ vaguely misogynistic ‘Wild World,’ which in her hands, becomes more cinematic, wide screened, bigger than the original, as she subtly challenges Stevens’ patronizing attitude).
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is her second proper long-player, following 2017’s Play Til You Win. And this album marks what can’t help but feel a change in her approach to music. The album is intimate, distractingly so in many ways, as her soft, breathy vocals make it sound like she’s playing the song in your living room, her spoken-word introduction to ‘Hard Drive’ demands you pay attention.
The album arises out of her travels over the past few years, at least before Covid, as she found herself traversing three continents, and wandering through parks, museums, and down city streets. Relationships have evolved, altered, ended. And she’s still here, in her hometown of New York City. Making music. I am finding An Overview on Phenomenal Nature to be a somewhat difficult album, if only because it demands attention, it forces you to listen to her, her voice, her lyrics, her stories. Given that this is a generally laid back album makes that all the more impressive. Rather than Jack Johson’s trademark laidback sound that can just fade into the Sunday morning rituals, Cassandra Jenkins requires active listening.
The album begins with ‘Michelangelo,’ which was also the first single. She sings of a three-legged dog, making the best of it and yet always searching for what she lost, as she ponders relationships and trauma:
I’m looking at trauma, and wondering just how baked it is into my DNA. I’m exploring my relationship to past experiences, and asking how much control I have over falling into, or even perpetuating and calcifying, established roles. I’m simultaneously licking the wounds of a phantom limb and learning how to walk again.
The accompanying video intersperses between that three-legged dog and Jenkins herself, singing into the camera on her phone (or at least lip-synching) as she rides her bike through Central Park. She goes on to describe the breakdown of her metaphor and the very human response to push against our own experiences, complicating our healing process.
Some of that trauma also comes out in the second track, ‘New Bikini,’ where delivers her vocals very much à la Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, as she finds herself on the ocean shore, looking at the curative powers of the water, dealing with the ramifications of the death of one friend and what appears to be a chronic illness of another, and everything else that goes in between, as she seeks refuge with friends on the coast.
Jenkins wrote the album as she moved between drastic shifts in her own life, finding connections, developing an intuition as to where to go next, what to do next. Like most of us, in the midst of all the confusion, she found wonder in it all, as she attempted to find comfort in the chaos. She ended up in the studio with Josh Kaufman with ideas, not songs. And yet, they hammered out the album in a week. Listening, one can see the ideas behind the songs, and one gets the sense that these tracks were all carefully gestated, built, and structured, as she, Kaufman and a series of musicians create this gorgeous, aching, gentle landscape of sound that hints at turmoil and chaos all throughout.
‘Hard Drive’ begins with her reciting, in spoken word, a series of notes on her iPhone as she travelled around NYC, starting with the line ‘These are things that can happen…’ and I am almost surprised to hear her NYC accent here, and then she moves into the studio, talking about what a security guard with a Queens accent who gave Jenkins ‘an overview on phenomenal nature’ before going on a rant about 45. We carry on with Jenkins as she wanders, she telling us stories in the spoken word, before her chorus where she sings that ‘The mind is just a hard drive,’ with this wild sax line floating around. She talks about learning to drive, getting her license at the age of 35, and her friend, Darryl, who taught her to drive asking her if she is always nervous. This is the song that is the most impossible to walk away from, given her vocal delivery, her spoken word, her graceful chorus.
The pre-release of this album that I have been listening to is categorized as ‘ambient indie folk rock.’ If you’ve been reading The Typescript regularly, you know exactly what I think of attempts to categorize music. And yet, and yet. Nothing could better describe this album. I’ve been listening to it a lot, giving pause in the midst of chaotic days at work to remind myself to breathe.
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is out tomorrow.