The Irish singer and composer’s second album of intimate, experimental folk is at its best when it is quiet and tempered.
Hillary Woods made this record, her second, while she was pregnant. She recorded it between her home in Galway, Ireland and in the home of her producer—the Norwegian noisenik Lasse Marhaug—who has frequently collaborated with Woods’ labelmate . Noise-folk of this kind is supposed to be more illusory than your traditional pop album, filling in the gaps between each sound so that it becomes its own Rorschach test. Unfortunately, Birthmarks seldom gives you the incentive to find yourself within the record. The conviction of its creators scarcely connects with the convictions of its perceiver.
Woods’ previous album, Colt, which she self-produced, indicated that she was a musician with a visual artist’s approach—a patch-worker constructing layer upon layer. Her piano was her underpainting, which she built upon with synths, the occasional grain of microsounds, and foreboding drones. With the help of Marhaug, Birthmarks augments these sound-art elements, giving it a heavier noise-to-music ratio than its predecessor.
Birthmarks becomes a minimalist-maximalist mishmash of field recordings, microsounds, maximalist drones without ever coming into focus. The elements are used too liberally and haphazardly, to the point where the album becomes an indecipherable well of sound that’s hard to unscramble. “The Mouth” begins in what sounds like a lonely, long-abandoned bunker, ready to be filled with sound, but it swiftly becomes overembellished with screaming gray noise, whooping saxophone, cinematic strings, horrific, body-convulsing beats (the kind that used to exhilarating effect on ). While it may have brought Woods “” while creating it, its overstimulation has the opposite effect.
Birthmarks is at its best when its effects are more tempered. “Lay Bare” reaches for the sublime, as Woods’ voice—somewhere between ’ Elizabeth Fraser and ’ Dolores O’Riordan—abides by the same pitch and cadence as the gorgeous, delirious strings—it just stops short of being overwatered by beauty. By the song’s end, the music is converted back into noise, as a long, unaccompanied drone plays. These smaller moments make visible Woods’ internal and external environments. There could be more of them, as they help to make sense of the album’s more bombastic parts.
The acoustic, musical, often beautiful elements of the album—Woods’ voice, repetitive sliding guitar riffs, occasional piano, frequent strings—could potentially signify and give meaning to its nonmusical elements. The core of Woods’ artistry is found in these quiet moments. “I am afraid it’s growing inside of me,” she sings on “Orange Tree,” “My body knows it can’t make it out.” Her voice becomes submerged; her body supposedly oppressed. If Birthmarks is Woods’ restless attempt at self-birth, her true emergence feels yet to come.
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