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Jherek Bischoff’s Composed is presented by its Brassland label as “orchestral pop,” and a quick review of his track-by-track collaborators—David Byrne, Caetano Veloso and Greg Saunier, Mirah Zeitlyn and Paris Hurley, Nels Cline, Craig Wedren, Carla Bozulich, Zac Pennington and SoKo, and Dawn McCarthy—makes that an obvious circle to draw. The project’s own PR points out that its “creation was informed by Jherek’s history of playing in indie bands (Parenthetical Girls, Xiu Xiu, The Dead Science and more), a fervent desire to make great pop music and a love affair with the potential of the orchestra.”
Now, if I never had to hear another clichéd discussion of “blurring genre lines” again, I would sleep just fine at night, but in this case it strikes me how comfortably Bischoff’s music achieves his stated goals—mixing and matching stylistic elements of both worlds and ending up with something uniquely his rather than just a gloss of orchestral color decorating a rock band. More than that, however, what really makes this orchestral song cycle stand out to my ear is the diverse range of timbral color the vocalists brings to their tracks (a few of which were co-written by the singer alongside Bischoff). Taken as an album-length work, the collection of unique voices Composed encompasses as part of its scheme is impressive; that it all comes together so seamlessly is a credit to the strength of Bischoff’s singular one.
Beneath these distinctive actors, the orchestra lays out an occasionally pointed but more often lush and sweeping sound bed, remarkable considering how it was assembled. According to the composer, the album was written on the ukulele and then recorded one instrument at a time using a single microphone and a laptop, with Bischoff traveling house-to-house (via bicycle, no less) to capture each part in various musicians’ living rooms. Aside from being an adorable backstory, it also makes Composed an interesting compositional project: a deep bag of puzzle pieces later assembled by the composer into (DIY-affordable) sonic images as memorable for their clever lyrical content as they are for the places their musical lines travel. Whether it’s the rhythms in “The Secret Of The Machines,” the harmonies of “Eyes,” or the tempos in the sparing duet that is “Young And Lovely,” each song is playing a game just a little more startling than anticipated. It’s an easy stretch of the ear that keeps things exciting, not a breach of expectation so severe that it provokes an aural confrontation. And if you find yourself inspired to sway along in time, I suspect the orchestra won’t mind the impromptu accompaniment.