The word “chamber,” used as an adjective to describe music, has flipped, performed a complete 180 in its cluster of meanings. Originally, “chamber music” described a reduced scope and a relaxed formality by comparison to orchestral music. Music for smaller spaces is its root meaning, fewer players a direct consequence of that. It also suggested casualness due to the absence of the autocratic authority of the conductor, leaving the musicians to clock and to lead themselves for a change. Finally, “chamber” meant fineness and delicacy, since bombast and war sims were not an option.
I use the word “chamber” all the time in my music writing, for chamber is my thing, and chamber is in – chamber pop, chamber folk and, someday soon I am sure, chamber punk – and I usually mean the exact opposite of its original sense. Chamber now means an expanded sound palette and lineup: folk music with oboes and cellos for example, or rock with brass, a Theremin and a small chorus. It means more, not less, arrangement, coordination and compositional ambition than pop forms usually entail. It implies the presence, not the absence, of an auteur: an autocratic authority micromanaging the musical detail, as opposed to the laissez-faire, default- and convention-governed negotiation of roles and space that happens in a traditional rock or folk group.
But at least chamber can still mean delicate and fine. In fact, “chamber music” hasn’t really changed its intrinsic sense at all; what has changed is the thing that it is the alternative to: Chamber is a step down the ladder of musical and logistical complexity from symphonic music, a step up from rock and folk.
Here steps up Arc Iris, an unabashedly “chamber” and micromanaged poly-folk ensemble featuring the singer/songwriting and compositional auteurism of Jocie Adams, formerly of the Low Anthem. While many songwriters these days augment their arrangements with a bit of the chamber-fine, freshening their standard folk tunes with splashes of brass quartets, stacked vocals and laptop beats without ever really testing the limits of pop forms, Adams is the real deal: a shamelessly fussy, precious and through-composing mastermind writing one sui generis art song after another. She does not graft fanciful arrangements onto conventional tunes; these tunes are fancy from go. And it is hard not to be impressed by the exacting level of musical development in effect from the downbeat of Arc Iris’ eponymous debut.
A full minute into the opening track, “Money Gnomes,” you’re going to think that you know exactly where you are: Why, you are in the big, fancy barn of Mumfordian nu-folk and newgrass, with a banjo-and-snare-powered train groove and the familiar, clipped and keen, folksy elocution of Adam’s vocal delivery, a viral vocal style that contains echoes of Joanna Newsom, Jolie Holland, Nellie McKay and others. But this train is then abruptly derailed by a swirling, kaleidoscopic waltz, some calliope chromaticism and multiple character voices fleshing out an archaic and allegorical Lewis Carroll-type fantasy of some kind about materialism and corruption. Now you don’t know where you are anymore, and that’s where you will stay for the next ten tracks.
That teasing pattern is repeated numerous times. Songs may begin in the lounge (“Canadian Cowboy”), in the barrelhouse (“Singing so Sweetly,” “Powder Train”) or in Nola, or on doo-wop’s streetcorner; but they all end in the same place: the chamber. Even the most grooving and simple songs on this record, the ones that offer respite from the artiness, seem to arrive at a delicate, extended rubato breakdown at some point in their arc. You can take the girl out of the chamber, but…
Chamber pop forces us to differentiate idea from execution in a way that few other genres do. In some hands, chamber can seem heavy on execution, light on idea: all icing, no cake; all doily, no table. It all depends on the strength of the core melodies. Even a chamber-pop superstar like Sufjan Stevens can sometimes crush his frail little tunes under the weight of his compositional ambition. (But ah, he can be such a very fine songwriter that I forgive him his pretensions. Still, mark it well: Not everyone can or should try to be Randy Newman.)
Jocie Adams is a master of execution, but she has got the ideas too. This is why my favorite tracks on Arc Iris are not the folksy, swinging and rocky ones meant to move me, but the pure art songs of the bunch: “Honor of the Rainbows I,” “Honor of the Rainbows II” and the exquisite “Might I Deserve to Have a Dream.” Here, her indebtedness to the fully realized otherworldly musicality of Joanna Newsom is evident, as Adams wishes not only to create her own musical language and world, but to populate it with her own set of symbols, allegories and myths as well.
Arc Iris appears at the Falcon in Marlboro on Saturday, August 9, and Tony Falco displays once again what a fine and imaginative matchmaker he can be, pairing the New England chamber folk group with Jeremy Mage and the Magi: a pretty high-end chamber group posing as a world groove ensemble. (See my Almanac Weekly review of Mage’s album here: https://ulsterpub.wpengine.com/2014/07/18/gift-of-the-magi/)
Arc Iris with Jeremy Mage & the Magi, Saturday, August 9, 7 p.m.; no cover/donations encouraged, Falcon, 1348 Route 9W, Marlboro; www.liveatthefalcon.com.