Dawn Richard / Spencer Zahn: Pigments Album Review

November 9, 2022 - Uncategorized

Dawn Richard’s music feels as if it’s emanating from a higher plane than ours. Even back in her more radio-friendly days with Danity Kane and Diddy, the New Orleans singer imbued her songs with a rare vulnerability, emerging from the hedonistic landscape of late-2000s hip-hop and R&B with earnest, heartbroken compositions about losing love and finding it beneath the strobe lights of the dancefloor. She’s a singer of big emotions, and even as she’s pushed her solo work further into experimental realms, she has continued to foreground feeling above all else.

Pigments takes this evolution a step further, transforming Richard’s voice into a luminescent mist. Conceived with bassist and neoclassical composer Spencer Zahn after the two collaborated on his 2018 debut, the album captures the sensory, abstract feel of Richard’s solo work, but from an entirely different vantage point. As Richard sings impressionistic songs of love (and self-love), Zahn’s radiant chamber music works like a prism, splitting her voice into beams of pure color. An avowed Mark Hollis fan whose work draws from ECM’s celestial approach to jazz, Zahn crafts some of his most nuanced arrangements yet, each softly strummed guitar and closely mic’d clarinet breathing with effortless ease. Not only do the two of them make a remarkably natural pair—they each bring out some of each other’s best work.

Throughout Pigments, Richard’s voice appears and dissipates, guiding the listener along on a gradual drift downstream. Where Zahn’s instrumentals are often measured and gentle, Richard’s performance is dynamic, regularly growing from a soft quiver to a mighty, all-encompassing wail and back again. After the opening “Coral” sets the stage with a yawning, Gavin Bryars-like hum, Richard materializes on “Sandstone,” imbuing Zahn’s arrangements with enormous power. “Dreamer,” she announces like a specter emerging from a fog, “I want to love like you/I want to see the world through your eyes.” As the song swells to its climax, Richard’s voice fuses with Zahn’s instruments until they become indistinguishable from one another. The duo returns to this swooning psychedelia throughout Pigments: “Vantablack,” in particular, seems almost to melt, Richard’s vocal runs drizzling over Zahn’s shuffling drums like warm sap.

Richard’s greatest gift to Zahn as a collaborator is the way she keeps his music from getting too comfortable. As sumptuous as his arrangements may be, a vocalist like Richard requires heft: After “Cerulean” opens with a hypnotizing wash of synthesizers and saxophones, Richard begins building the song to a gut-wrenching peak. “You can’t choose who you give your heart to,” she declares, and suddenly the doors are flung open, Zahn’s synthesizers thrumming like a cathedral organ at the dawn of the rapture—there’s even a wailing electric guitar solo that somehow doesn’t feel too dramatic. The more relaxed “Saffron” has the feel of an otherworldly late-night waltz, its upright bass and saxophone answering Richard’s repeated question—“Can you save me the last dance?”—with all the theatrical flair of lost lovers singing to each other in the dark.

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