- Moira Smiley and VOCO, In Our Voices
(Self-released, CD, digital)
It's said that a melody line is the horizon of a composition, as the notes are written left to right. Meanwhile, harmony, with its vertically oriented notes, is an ascending line. I've always pictured this concept as a sort of reflected sunbeam, hitting a clear, pacific stretch of ocean and shooting back up into a blue sky.
On her latest record, In Our Voices, Vermont-based musician Moira Smiley taps into the formidable beauty and power of harmony, collaborating with her ensemble of backing vocalists, VOCO, consisting of Karla Mundy, Dawn Pemberton, Jake Asaro and Gregory Fletcher. It's a record brimming with voices, often centered on rhythms performed on the human body. The combined effect of these body rhythms, harmonies and Smiley's soaring melodies creates a type of hyper-organic sound, a tone rooted in the noises of humanity: singing, breathing, stomping and clapping. There is nothing synthetic about this record.
Smiley, who also performs with the Oakland, Calif., indie outfit Tune-Yards, is a celebrated composer with a diverse catalog. Among her specialties is choral arrangement, a talent on ample display on In Our Voices.
Lead single "How Can I Cry" showcases many of the album's musical themes. In the video for the song, much of it shot in Burlington, we see Smiley's feet beating out a rhythm on the pavement as she begins to sing. VOCO are with her, flying in formation, and when she starts to sing the lyric "sisters and brothers" and the others join in, the power of the five voices is palpable.
The album confronts heavy topical themes, as well. Like so many of us, Smiley finds herself grappling with the issues of race in modern society. As the Black Lives Matter movement has risen in our national discourse, many white artists have tried to address those issues in their songwriting to varying degrees of success — and in some cases, cringe.
For her part, Smiley isn't skittish. "Gonna sing it when I feel like cryin' / When I'm uncomfortable and don't know why yet / When I am guilty of the laissez-faire, my ignorance of you laid bare / I'll talk to you before I raise my hand, so you can call on me to make a stand," she swears on "Sing About It."
Listening rather than leading when it comes to racial issues is a sentiment we've seen several local white artists espouse of late. Still, that hasn't stopped plenty of others from attempting to do just the opposite. While VOCO are a multiethnic and multi-gender ensemble, this is still Smiley's show and Smiley's words. Fair or not, some might wonder whether her message of taking a step back is undercut by a record full of declarations.
What elevates In Our Voices above pandering is a true sense of belief that underscores the compositions. Whether it's the haunting "Refugee" or the anthemic "Bellow," Smiley's songs carry the power of her conviction in every lyric and shuffled beat. And when those gorgeous VOCO harmonies kick in ... woof. You almost have to put on sunglasses, such is the brilliance of the voices singing together. Beauty and purpose joined in song make for a stunning sonic creation.
In Our Voices is available at moirasmiley.com.