wears the trousers magazine

josephine foster: graphic as a star (2009)
December 23, 2009, 9:15 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , ,

Josephine Foster
Graphic As A Star ••••

Josephine Foster has long been a prominent figure among Wears The Trousers’ eccentric favourites. From her early psychedelic work with backing band The Supposed to 2005’s superbly exotic and avant-garde Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You, which wrapped her forever mesmerising vocals around odd sounds and soft guitars, through to 2007’s brilliant A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, which offered Ms Foster’s very own interpretation of Schubert and Brahms – howling and distorted electric guitars included – she has frequently left us flabbergasted and a little bit in love. Last year’s typically immersive This Coming Gladness did nothing to change our minds – this slightly crazy opera school dropout from Colorado really has something special. So we were not surprised when Fire Records announced that Foster was planning to release a song cycle centred around the poems of Emily Dickinson. Equally reclusive and socially discomfited, the two seemed to be a perfect match.

The story has it that Foster first had the idea for the Dickinson project while sitting out a cold winter in a small village in the mountains of Spain. Having brought only a few books with her, she immersed herself for hours in a collection of Dickinson’s poetry, quickly finding similarities between her own isolated situation and the writer’s state of mind. The 27 ‘songs’ that make up Graphic As A Star were subsequently written in a matter of weeks, using only Foster’s distinctive voice and a guitar, with the odd wheeze of harmonica chiming in with the sound of tweeting birds. Far from being abstruse, the album is pleasingly accessible. For once, Foster has not used every opportunity to disguise her beautiful, otherworldly vocals, but has accentuated them through simplified accompaniment. Where in the past distorted electric guitar might have soared right through her pretty vocal frills, or some other background noise might have distracted from her free-spirited wails, here she only has to compete with a simple acoustic backdrop – which frankly is not much of a challenge.

Foster herself has stated that she is most influenced by “Tin Pan Alley on my maternal side, rock and roll on my paternal side, Western folk music by birth, art-song and classical music via my adolescent passions”, and Graphic As A Star seems more or less to be a distorted amalgamation of all of these. ‘Tell As A Marksman’, for example, has a touch of old-timey Americana, while ‘The Spider Holds A Silver Ball’ reminisces exquisitely on the classical Lieder format she cannibalised on A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing. What links all of the songs together is a sense of gravity, a longing and quiet discomfort with the soul. ‘My Life Had Stood A Loaded Gun’ in particular captures this well, as Foster so beautifully captures the evident desperation of Dickinson’s words in such a graceful manner. Her singing has a truthful huskiness to it, her voice sounding old and resigned beyond her age.

Many of the compositions run less than a minute long, meaning that some of the a cappella tracks go by before you have a chance to listen properly or remember the strange vocal melody that has just fluttered around in your head. In this sense, Graphic As A Star leaves you longing for more and it does take several listens before some of the melodies stay with you. That’s no bad thing in itself; Dickinson’s poetry was often brief, designed to leave its readers pondering, and to translate this into song format authentically requires a certain pragmatism. It’s also a sign that Foster’s uncanny approach might just be working.

Anja McCloskey
UK release date: 07/12/09; www.myspace.com/josephinefoster


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