Catherine Graindorge, "Eldorado"
This second solo album from Belgian violinist/composer/actress is my first encounter with her work, but it seems like she has been releasing compelling music for quite some time (she has collaborated with ex-Bad Seed Hugo Race, composed film scores, and also plays in a trio called Nile On waX, among other things). Notably, Graindorge's excellent solo debut (The Secret of Us All) was released nearly a decade ago, as the road to Eldorado turned out to be unexpectedly long and prone to extended detours (several of which ultimately shaped this album's more personal direction). One of those course-changing events was the passing of Graindorge's father in 2015 (inspiring her to compose a play about his life), but Eldorado was also shaped by the story of her father's Rwandan friend (Rosalie), Graindorge's own experience hosting Eritrean migrants, and the harmonium performances that she and her daughters gave in nursing home gardens during Belgium's lockdown. Also of note: Eldorado is the first album that Graindorge was able to record with her friend (and longtime PJ Harvey producer) John Parish, who plays several instruments on the album. Now that all the stars are finally in alignment, I can confirm that Eldorado was probably worth the wait, as it is a unique, freewheeling, and oft-gorgeous album, at times feeling like the spiritual descendant of the sophisticated art pop of artists like David Sylvian.
For an album that is ostensibly by a violinist (and violist), Eldorado is considerably more stylistically elusive than I would have expected. The darkly psychedelic and elegiac opener "Rosalie" makes for a very impressive (if deceptive) introduction though, as woozily submerged-sounding backwards vocals provide the backdrop for a sad and beautiful violin melody. The following "Lockdown" continues in a similarly hallucinatory and meditative direction, but eschews vocals in favor of minimalist harmonium drones enhanced by slow-motion waves of hazily pulsing violins. And then all hell breaks loose, as the title piece sounds like a chugging, dual-guitar passage from a killer Expo '70 jam (there is even crashing cymbals, rolling toms, and some absolutely feral-sounding violin shredding). In its final two minutes, however, "Eldorado" dissolves into a lovely passage of spoken word (in French) and shimmering ambiance. If it were not for that sublime coda, I probably would have gotten whiplash a second time from the transition into "Ghost Train," as Graindorge unexpectedly materializes as a darkly sensual (and darkly psychedelic) cabaret chanteuse. It is the album's strongest piece by a landslide and it only gets better as it unfolds, blossoming into something resembling a churning and howling tango of the damned. Lamentably, Graindorge is done with singing for the remainder of the album, but there is still one more major highlight to come, as "Butterfly In A Frame" is a roiling and intense soundscape that builds to a demonically volcanic finale of snarling and squealing strings. The closing "Eno" is another noteworthy piece, albeit one with dramatically dialed down intensity, as Parish contributes a quietly lovely, blues-tinged guitar solo over some warm, Eno-style ambiance (though Graindorge spices things up near the end with some sharper textures). The album is rounded out with one more solid drone piece ("Kangaroos in Fire") and a couple of shorter compositions and all of it is strong. Not as strong as "Ghost Train" or "Butterfly," mind you, but Eldorado is nevertheless quite a compelling (and oft-intense) whole. And a very pleasant surprise too, as there are not many classical-adjacent artists who can combine beautiful melodies, fiery intensity, and convincing psych touches as seamlessly and confidently as Graindorge does here.
Samples can be found here.