JULIEN BAKER – ” The Albums “

Posted: February 3, 2021 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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Julien Baker’s solo debut, Sprained Ankle, was one of the most widely hailed works of 2015. The album, recorded by an 18-yearold and her friend in only a few days, was a bleak yet hopeful, intimate document of staggering experiences and grace, centered entirely around Baker’s voice, guitar, and unblinking honesty. The album appeared on year-end lists everywhere from NPR Music to New York Magazine’s Vulture.

For years, Baker and a group of close friends have performed as the band Forrister (formerly The Star Killers), but when college took her four hours away, her need to continue creating found an outlet through solo work. The intent was never to make these songs her main focus, yet the process proved to be startlingly cathartic. As each song came into shape, it became more apparent that Baker had genuinely deep, surprisingly dark stories to tell from her thus far short life . Tales of her experiences are staggering, and when set to her haunting guitar playing, the results are gut wrenching and heartfelt, relatable yet very personal.  There’s something wonderfully hypnotizing about Baker gently confessing her soul with such tremendous honesty. Baker has met critical acclaim for her performances and song writing, described as emotively cathartic, as well as a fresh take on folk music. Her album Sprained Ankle has been described as featuring pared-back fragile songs, while Turn Out the Lights features more developed song structures while retaining the raw emotion of its predecessor

Baker has opened for artists including Death Cab for Cutie, Conor Oberst, The Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian, Paramore, The Front Bottoms, and Manchester Orchestra. Julien Baker won the hearts of music lovers right out of the gate with the startling intimacy and meticulous craftsmanship of her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle. Her sophomore album from the following year, Turn Out the Lights, built on that with a somewhat more elaborate sound palette, recorded at Ardent Studios. Since then, her only release has been the 2018 EP by boygenius, a collaborative effort with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, and fans have been scanning the skies for any new solo work with great anticipation.

Now the wait is nearly over, with two new videos heralding the release of her third album, “Little Oblivions”, due out on February 26 via Matador Records.

In 2017 she was signed to Matador Records.  In 2018, Baker formed the supergroup Boygenius with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, both with whom she had toured previously. The group released three songs in August of that year and subsequently announced an EP and accompanying tour.  The EP, self-titled boygenius, was released on October 2018.

In 2020, Baker, alongside Boygenius bandmates Bridgers and Dacus, recorded background vocals for the Hayley Williams’ song “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” ahead of the release of Williams’ debut album, Petals for Armor.

“Sprained Ankle” (2015)

Julien Baker was a member of the band Forrister when she recorded a solo EP of songs that didn’t fit her band. Using her friend’s free studio time, she recorded demos, and she travelled to Richmond, Virginia, to record sparse versions of her songs. The songs were recorded quickly and released on Bandcamp as an EP – ‘Vessels’ and ‘Brittle Boned’ were added to the record later. While the arrangements are low-key, Baker’s songs often deal with big issues like addiction and faith. The stark sound works for Baker’s heartfelt songs, making them rawer and more poignant.

People quickly started to share the album, including a video version of her song, “Something” — shot in a Memphis parking garage by local filmmaker Breezy Lucia — but it wasn’t until Rhorer and 6131 contacted her about a record deal that she realized what was happening. On her new label’s advice, she took the record down from Bandcamp until it could be mastered and formally released.

Memphis, TN-based songwriter Julien Baker is the latest addition to the Matador Records roster. The 21-year-old’s devastating and vulnerable debut album, Sprained Ankle, which was originally released in 2015 and now gets re-released by Matador. The album was recorded at Spacebomb Studios, though Julien’s songs don’t share the down-home gloss of the other albums produced there. Instead of beefing up her honest tunes with rich layering like Natalie Prass or Matthew E. White, Baker pares her songs down to their simplest possible format: alone, singing and playing acoustic guitar directly into the microphone, sometimes in a single take. That decision resulted in a remarkable record, one full of beautiful, personal explorations revealed in stark intimacy. That choice makes a lot of sense for Baker’s voice, both in the literal and figurative sense. Rather than Prass’ sweet, soaring tones or White’s blue-eyed soul, Sprained Ankle is delivered in reedy whispers and chilled coos. Released just before she turned 20 years old, the record still sounds raw – not that her voice lacks control or power, but rather that the weariness of songs about death, breakups, and existential questioning are sung with incredible presence. They’re coming of age songs from someone still coming of age, the wounds still fresh, the big truths currently being revealed. There are the struggles of depression, drugs, loneliness, but the clear-eyed way she faces it all supersedes any platitude.

Sprained Ankle becomes more immersive the deeper it gets into the running list. Baker’s vocals take flight on ‘Rejoice’ – “I rejoice, and complain/I never know what to say/But I think there’s a god and he hears either way” is a great line. The keening electric guitar of ‘Vessels’ is a lovely accompaniment for Baker’s voice, while ‘Go Home’ is a cathartic closer, concluding with a piano version of modern hymn ‘In Christ Alone’. There’s great stuff at the start of the record too – the double-tracked vocals on tracks like ‘Good News’ are the only indication that these songs weren’t laid down in one sitting, while ‘Blacktop’ is typically confessional.

“Blacktop” the first track on her debut solo album, is a lonely song, maybe her loneliest, though it has some strong competition. When she asks, in the next verse, that some intervening divine, the same that saved her life, “come visit me in the back of an ambulance,” it is with the longing of something barely missed, rather than any certainty in her good fortune.

Sprained Ankle is a lovely debut, with Baker’s songs often immersive.

in 2016, Baker performed in an NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert, During that set she referenced a new song, “Sad Song #11”, which was later retitled “Funeral Pyre” and released as a single, with “Distant Solar Systems” as the b-side. Baker contributed the song “Decorated Lawns” to the Punk Talks winter compilation Jingle Yay, released in December.

Turn Out The Lights (2017)

Baker’s second album was recorded in a mere six days, with Baker handling most of the instruments, but it feels slick after the rawness of “Sprained Ankle”. There’s still no rhythm section, but Baker adds touches of violin, clarinet, and saxophone. It lacks the lo-fi intensity of Sprained Ankle, and the songs are less memorable, but it’s still a worthy follow-up.

With Turn Out the Lights, Baker returns to a much bigger stage, but with the same core of breath-taking vulnerability and resilience. From its opening moments  when her chiming, evocative melody is accompanied by swells of strings  “Turn Out the Lights” throws open the doors to the world without sacrificing the intimacy that has become a hallmark of her songs. This evolution from ‘Sprained Ankle’s intentionally spare production allows Baker — who is still the album’s sole producer and writer — greater scope and freedom. Strings and woodwinds now shade the corners of her compositions, and Baker takes to piano rather than guitar on several tracks, pushing the 21-yearold Baker’s work to cinematic heights of intensity.

Julien Baker releases her highly anticipated second album Turn Out The Lights via Matador Records. The album arrives nearly two years to the day after Baker’s debut LP, Sprained Ankle, which was widely acclaimed by outlets including The New York Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Noisey, and MOJO, among others. Recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios in Baker’s hometown of Memphis, TN, Turn Out The Lights expands upon the sound and vision of Sprained Ankle while retaining the haunting, confessional song writing style for which she has become known. Throughout the album, Baker reflects on experiences of her own and those closest to her, exploring the internal conflicts that wrestle inside us all: how we deal and cope with our struggles, and how it all impacts both ourselves and our relationships of all kinds. The result is a deeply empathetic album that embraces the greys and complex truths of humanity and mental health. Turn Out The Lights was written and produced by Baker. 

The moment that comes closest to recapturing the intensity of Sprained Ankle is ‘Sour Breath’, with Baker screaming “The harder I swim, the faster I sink”. ‘Sour Breath’ is nestled between other lovely songs like ‘Appointments’ and the sparse piano of ‘Televangelist’ – Baker also plays organ on the latter. The second half is less memorable than the first, but ‘Hurt Less’ is lovely.

Turn Out The Lights suffers from sequel-itis a little, but it’s a fine record on its own terms.

Julien baker   red door halloween

Red Door (2019)

On the heels of her triumphant Matador debut Turn Out The Lights and the critically acclaimed collaborative EP ‘boygenius’, Julien Baker returns with her first new solo recordings in 18 months, “Red Door / Conversation Piece”, available exclusively for Record Store Day 2019. The 7”vinyl features the first studio recording of a fan favourite Red Door, previously only heard live, and a previously unreleased cut begun during the Turn Out The Lights sessions,  7″ – Limited Red Vinyl only.

Little Oblivions (2021)

With a new album, Little Oblivions, about to drop on Matador on February 26th, Julien Baker is surfacing more and more these days. It’s good to have her back. The Memphis native has gone from success to success simply by sticking to her unique blend of the cathartic confessional, from the intimate to the dramatic. Though her voice has always powerfully navigated both whispers and roaring melodies, it seems she’s grown into her range even more as the years have gone by. That was especially in evidence last night, when she led her band through “Faith Healer,” the album’s first single, on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

Baker’s third album is due in late February 2021, and it looks like it will include a rhythm section. “Little Oblivions” will be the third studio album by Julien Baker. Recorded in Memphis, TN, the record weaves together unflinching autobiography with assimilated experience and hard-won observations from the past few years, taking Baker’s capacity for storytelling to new heights. It also marks a sonic shift, with the songwriter’s intimate piano and guitar arrangements newly enriched by bass, drums, keyboards, banjo, and mandolin with nearly all of the instruments performed by Baker. “Faith Healer” was released in October, and portends a more ambitious approach to production than Turn Out the Lights. While that album filled in her sound more than her debut, it was still rather minimalist, for the most part. Now Baker brings us the sound of a rock band, albeit one still laced with all the introspection of her previous work. 

Upon the release of “Faith Healer,” the artist released this statement: 
Put most simply, I think that ‘Faith Healer’ is a song about vices, both the obvious and the more insidious ways that they show up in the human experience. I started writing this song 2 years ago and it began as a very literal examination of addiction. For awhile, I only had the first verse, which is just a really candid confrontation of the cognitive dissonance a person who struggles with substance abuse can feel— the overwhelming evidence that this substance is harming you, and the counterintuitive but very real craving for the relief it provides. When I revisited the song I started thinking about the parallels between the escapism of substance abuse and the other various means of escapism that had occupied a similar, if less easily identifiable, space in my psyche.

Thanks Aphoristic Album Reviews

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