Johanna Warren: Gemini I
Spirit House

Issued on Johanna Warren's nascent Spirit House imprint, Gemini I is that rare recording that leaves you wanting more. In itself, that's not a total surprise, considering that her third solo album features a modest nine songs (its nine-song companion, Gemini II, will eventually follow), but the feeling has less to do with numbers and more to do with the quality of the material involved. Each song is a perfectly realized construction whose instrumental makeup matches the mood and lyrical content; the Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter obviously worked on the material painstakingly yet not so much that Gemini I feels laboured.

Lyrically, Warren eschews grand themes for intimate, autobiographical songs about relationships and human experience, and in that regard she carries on the time-honoured tradition associated with figures such as Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, and Nick Drake, three of Warren's major influences. Specifically, Gemini I has to do with the joys and struggles of romantic love, its tendency to illuminate both the endearing and maddening aspects of a partner, and ponders what leads to the undermining of perfectly promising unions. In addition to literary allusions to Virginia Woolf and the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, an occasional hint of mysticism arises, which likewise doesn't surprise given that by Warren's own admission the songs were inspired by her relationships with two Geminis, one of them a Tarot card reader (two cards in particular, The Lovers and The Devil, influenced Warren's conceptualizing of the Gemini project).

Though voice and finger-picked acoustic guitar are the songs' natural core, other sounds flesh out a number of arrangements, and the production values are high (the album was laid down at Dreamland, a studio in Woodstock, New York). Besides vocals and guitars, Warren plays bass, percussion, flute, harmonium, mellotron, vibes, and synths; a major contributor to the project, Bella Blasko is credited with vocals, piano, organ, mellotron, and synths, while Jim Bertini and Jane Scarpantoni contribute drums and cello, respectively, to a track apiece. The arrangements are luscious when the material demands it (“Hungry Ghost,” “There is a Light”) but stripped down at appropriate moments, too (“circlenot astraight,” “Glukupikron”).

The nine settings reveal Warren to be a fine songwriter and melodist, not to mention a great nurturer of mood. Aside from the songs themselves, the major weapon in Warren's arsenal is her voice, a bewitching and remarkably agile instrument. Each song is marked by the beauty of her vocal tone, and as impressive is her unerring pitch, which is especially noticeable when a song such as “Let Me Stay” requires Warren to gracefully swoop and near-yodel in order to navigate its melodic trajectory. Adding to the album's vocal distinction, Warren's lead is often fleshed out with a multi-voiced chorus built up from herself and Blasko.

Vocally, Warren's at her most vulnerable on the impassioned piano ballad “circlenot astraight,” whereas the album's darker side comes to the fore during “The Blessing / The Curse” in the song's quietly threatening tone and lyrics. In keeping with the album theme, however, “White Owl” closes the album on a considerably uplifting and hopeful note (“So happy I found you ...”). Whether a song is winsome (the hypnotic opener “A Bird in the Crocodile's Mouth”), dreamlike (“Let Me Stay,” elevated by her seductive vocal lilt and ethereal flute textures), or punchy (“Hungry Ghost,” a natural contender for radio play), Gemini I consistently entrances.

September 2016