When people use phrases like stripped down, lo-fi, paired back and DIY I suspect they think this is arch and contrary when we live in a digital recording world with infinite sounds and limitless tracks to record onto and where bedroom producers get giddy adding 16 guitar lines and more keyboard parts than a 70s Prog artist ever could. But constraint fosters invention and in the case of Lael Neale’s new album Acquainted With Night it was born out of the disaffection recording using multiple musicians and collaborators. Neale says “I felt the songs had been stripped of their vitality in the process of layering drums, bass, guitar, violin and organ over them. They felt weighed down”. Sloughing off that weight and going back to basics has been the making of this record literally and figuratively.
The epiphany came from Neale and musician Guy Blakeslee who simplified the recording process to just 4 tracks laid onto cassette plus the acquisition of the instrument that is at the core of this record: the Omnichord, a plastic-fantastic machine which opened the song writing floodgates. The name Omnichord might not be familiar, but you likely have seen someone playing it and thought ‘what on earth is that?’. Developed in the early 1980s by the Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation it has knobs and dials for volume and tempo and push buttons for major, minor and 7th chords plus a ridged metal strip for playing glissando notes. There’s even the kind of basic onboard drum machine you might find on the Italian-made Bontempi keyboard range.
The Omnichord could be kitsch in the wrong hands but Lael Neale uses it to create an ethereal and mystical backdrop to the songs on Acquainted With Night. There’s a feeling of juxtaposing Neale’s native Virginia with the neon sprawl of Los Angeles which runs through the record and many tracks, such as ‘White Wings’, have the quality of hymns sung in a clapboard church as well as being imbued with some LA cool as on the previous single ‘Every Star Shivers in the Dark’. The synthetic magic of the Omnichord is combined with real magic of Lael Neale’s voice and the innocent charm of the recording process does not detract from the depth and wee-small-hours quality of this album. Acquainted With Night sounds like modern music from a sepia-tinted past and is utterly enthralling.
Review by Paul F Cook