Saltland: A Common Truth

If the title of the second Saltland album by Montréal-based cellist Rebecca Foon (Esmerine, Thee Silver Mt Zion, Set Fire To Flames) sounds familiar, there's a reason. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim's 2006 documentary film about global warming, Foon's A Common Truth takes climate change as its theme. Her deep commitment to environmental concerns extends far beyond album production: she's a member of Sustainability Solutions Group cooperative, the founder of the conservation charity Junglekeepers, co-founder of Pathway to Paris, and actively works on behalf of decarbonization, land conservation, and renewable energy.

The challenge facing Foon, and one she's met effectively on the forty-one-minute song cycle, is how to translate such concerns into musical form in such a way that the message is clearly shared without alienating the listener by being too heavy-handed or shrill. A satisfying balance is achieved in this case in a number of ways: by including instrumentals alongside vocal pieces; by leavening despair and gloom with optimism and resolve; by personalizing global and political concerns with personal and emotional ones; and by fashioning the album as an intimate communiqué between artist and listener. Her vocals and cello are at the forefront, but she's not entirely alone on the project: Warren Ellis (Nick Cave, The Dirty Three) plays violin and pump organ on the four instrumentals he co-wrote with Foon, and engineer Jace Lasek (The Besnard Lakes) plays guitar and MS-20 synthesizer on three songs.

Her desire to use cello as the primary sound source for the recording is conveyed the moment “To Allow Us All to Breathe” inaugurates the set with a subdued, prayer-like meditation and cello figures so forlorn they suggest vocalizing; much the same could be said of the mournful cello showcase “Magnolia” and the delicate, quietly uplifting closer “Forward Eyes II.” In these settings and elsewhere, she exploits the full measure of the instrument's potential by layering and processing it besides featuring it in its naked, unadulterated form. Electronic music strategies such as signal processing and re-sampling are present, too, but applied inconspicuously, their impact often subliminally felt if at all.

The album's harder edge comes to the fore during “I Only Wish This For You” and “A Common Truth” when Lasek's raw guitar textures amplify the tracks' doom-laden ambiance. “Light of Mercy,” on the other hand, plays like a gothic mantra when her ethereal vocal (backed by Ian Ilavsky's) is accompanied by a dream-like swirl of undulating violin and cello textures and pump organ undertow. As her hushed voice appears alongside piano at the beginning of “Under My Skin,” it's almost impossible not to think of Grouper, but make no mistake: as this consistently satisfying follow-up to 2013's I Thought It Was Us But It Was All of Us shows, Foon's is a singular artistic voice neither beholden to nor overly indebted to Liz Harris's or anyone else's, for that matter.

March 2017