The Control Group
Nouela Johnston is not, by any means, new to the music scene. She won the heart of the Seattle underground music scene as the former singer and pianist for such acts as Mon Frere and People Eating People. Now under the simple name Nouela, she strikes a powerful and emotional chord with debut album Chants.
My first thought, while listening to the soulful and melodic opener “Joke,” was how badly I wanted to play this song on vinyl and hear the fullness of each note. The deep sound of the separate piano chords opens the album like a curtain opens a play, with such a dramatic force that you practically tense up with excitement. Her beautifully soulful voice, one that resembles both Fiona Apple and Norah Jones at different times, rings of sadness as she sings, “It’s a cruel/joke to play.” The song immediately transitions into “Buckle Down” (my personal favorite off of the album), a faster-paced melodic piece that projects what the rest of Chants will be: the pain and anguish of a woman in a relationship, all told through the masterful piano playing and dynamic vocals of Johnston herself.
Chants is a magnificent album. Each song is so drastically different from the next, but each spins a web of melody mixed with power-driven background sounds, like finger snaps, snare hits, bass buzzes, and even literal chanting (specifically on song “Doubts,” which opens with a few ‘ahh’s worthy of a St. Vincent number). The lyrics are poetry from Johnston’s lips, each word masterfully thought out and packing a punch. Some songs are very blunt, like “Secrets” where she begins the song singing, “Don’t wanna call you a monster/because I know that’s what you want/you always get what you want/you always get what you want.” Then there are gems like “Fight,” where she practically spits out, “And we love it, don’t we?/The faintest taste of fame/We’re begging every jaded journalist to write your name/and we’ll just back down at the sons and the doctors and the lawyers who get there first.” Each song, I could feel her emotions dragging me into her every word, absorbing the piano melodies behind it all. And it kept me coming back for more.
While this isn’t Johnston’s first album, I truly hope it isn’t her last. Whether it’s under Nouela or a completely different name, I’m excited to see what she has in store for the future. Until then, I’ll hope for a longer album or at least buy a vinyl version of Chants to pull me in even more than it already has.
Chants is out on June 12th.
By Alex Marga