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Music Review: Holly Waxwing's The New Pastoral

Published onApr 05, 2023
Music Review: Holly Waxwing's The New Pastoral

Holly Waxwing. The New Pastoral. PC Music. 2023.

Holly Waxwing has been conjuring sonic landscapes from pop-music vocabularies for a decade now. On his 2013 album Goldleaf Acrobatics, Waxwing—a pseudonym of producer and sound designer Garrett Crosby—layered sundrenched samples from hip-hop, reggae, and jazz into an airborne wooze. But his Peach Winks EP, released just two years later, signaled a different trajectory. Shifting from atmospheric samples to pointillistic digital synthesis, Peach Winks comprised bantamweight arrangements whose sonic components flit across your attention like distracted birds in a forest canopy. There, too, Waxwing leaned on genre allusions, as if summoning the syntaxes of hip-hop, house, footwork, and electro to tame an unruly abundance of sonic invention. The New Pastoral, a six-track, 25-minute EP, follows Crosby’s move from Birmingham, Alabama to Providence, Rhode Island, as well as his arrival at PC Music, the label-cum-genre-cum-movement whose notorious brand of extroverted pop might seem at odds with the producer’s more bucolic inspirations (Crosby’s moniker is a portmanteau of his favorite bush and bird.) But despite these migrations, the modus operandi Waxwing gestated in Peach Winks remains largely intact. His compositions sort an unquantifiable array of sharp plucks, plump basses, and rippling percussion into modular forms that generate a gentle though insistent forward propulsion, whether in the EP’s livelier or more reposeful moods.

Though Waxwing has honed a mastery of digital sound design, he sets his skills in the service of melody and structure, staging heterogeneous sounds in abstract dialogues that have the innate virtuosity of birdsong. The lead singles “Sister Species” and “Meridians” incorporate a grammar of builds, drops, and breaks from genres like trance and EDM, albeit distilled into arrangements that feel lighter than air. On “Softcorners,” another up-tempo single, Waxwing can't resist incorporating cuttings of anonymized R&B vocals, which he pitches up and dissects like botanical specimens. They might be a bit cheesy, but they nonetheless index Waxwing’s admirable propensity for making the skin of his unique sonic world generously porous. Listening to these more energetic passages, you get the feeling that Waxwing builds his tracks with the inspiration of a neophyte forester discovering a hidden ecology.

Throughout the EP, Waxwing’s cellular arrangements and fleeting details are strung together by melodic and rhythmic ideas reminiscent of folksong. The title track, which opens the album, begins with slow yet whimsical variations on a simple stop-start rhythmic figure, like a virtuoso fiddler caught in a moment of introspective whimsy, before being ornamented by tiny blips and quick percussive flourishes that sound like toasted water. On “Milkweed,” the penultimate track, filtering pads duet with synthetic approximations of a nylon-string guitar and a Renaissance viol ensemble, all articulating an elementary, if often submerged, major-key chord progression. And the final track, “Arvensis” (Latin for “in the fields”), choreographs a similarly counterintuitive yet somehow cohesive set of instruments. At first, reverberant drums and sparkly bells characteristic of ’80s power ballads cohabit the track with a gliding lead synth reminiscent of a pedal-steel guitar; but halfway through a light-footed drum-and-bass groove tips the track into motion and steers the EP to closure.

Waxwing’s titles are usually allusive, but this EP’s title is surprisingly declarative, framing the collection as an aesthetic manifesto. The weight of the title is all the heavier given not just the compactness of the collection, but also pastoral’s being one of Western culture’s most ancient aesthetic modes, extending at least as far back as Theocritus’ Idylls. For two millennia, Western pastoralists continued the tradition of representing shepherds as idealized escapees from civilization and its discontents, but in the Romantic period the idiom expanded to include nature writing that contrasted rural life (again, idealized) with burgeoning industrial urbanism. In his 1992 essay “Does Pastoralism Have a Future?” the American critic Leo Marx argued that pastoral, in both its antique and more modern iterations, is an aesthetic of liminality, situated between nature and culture, society and its surrounding environment, and worldliness and transcendence. Waxwing's take on pastoral works similarly: his constructions cross-pollinate ageless melodies with a joyous science of FM synthesis and quantized beats. Of the pastoralists, Waxwing's sensibility reminds me most of Paul Cézanne. Just as the post-Impressionist painter would evoke a bright forest with a grid of tight, purposive brushstrokes, so Waxwing conveys, in pristine sonic quanta, a discreet radiance in the textures and structures of the more-than-human world.

jacobs smith:

this is really interesting. thanks for sharing this with us!

Terry Thomas:

This is great. I hadn’t heard of Holly before this, but added her to our list going forward.

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