Eric Chenaux: Skullsplitter

Is Eric Chenaux a jazz singer? Listening to Skullsplitter, one might very well think as much, even if the promotional literature characterizes him as an artist versed in “avant-garde balladry.” And the question doesn't arise simply because the album includes a treatment of Rodgers and Hart's “My Romance,” long a favourite of crooners like Sinatra and Fitzgerald, but for the bold way in which Chenaux uses his voice as a melodic instrument.

Constellation is justified in pitching Skullsplitter as Chenaux's “first properly solo record” as it's the first one free of guest musicians or collaborators. Though he's credited with vocals, guitars (electric, un-amplified electric, nylon-string), speakers, melodica, and electronics, the album's essence is constituted by the combination of his pure voice and idiosyncratic guitar playing. More precisely, his music derives its considerable impact from a striking juxtaposition: on the one hand, a crystal-clear voice that glides and soars, and on the other, guitar playing that never harmonically parallels the voice's trajectory but more diverges from it with oblique, semi-improvised lines. The two function like tributaries that flow in the same direction yet possess distinct shapes.

Adding to the music's general wooziness, bent notes on the nylon-string guitar lend “Spring Has Been a Long Time Coming” a rustic, blues-folk feel that makes for an effective complement to Chenaux's wistful vocal. On the album's longest track, “Poor Time,” the guitar playing is so free-floating as to seem almost drunken, and it's ultimately the languorous, jazz-inflected flow of Chenaux's singing that becomes the stabilizing force. Almost half of the nine songs are vocal-free, namely “The Pouget,” “The Henri Favourite,” “La Vieux Favori,” and, surprisingly, “My Romance,” the latter of which is de-familiarized by the guitar's wah-wah rendering of its well-known melodies.

Chenaux's singing and guitar playing make for an unusual yet transfixing blend on this forty-two-minute set, from the opening “Have I Lost My Eyes?” to the closing “Summer & Time.” In that opening song, for example, his adventurous exploration of various guitar treatments is as as much a focal point as his angelic, unadulterated singing, and the title track likewise captivates for the way the instrumental and vocal textures alternate between harmony and dissonance. And yet, even though it might on paper sound as if the two strands follow unrelated paths, they somehow hold together, much like a Venn diagram whose shapes intersect.

February 2015