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Reviews: Christina Vantzou's No. 1

Christina Vantzou's No. 1

The Dead Texan, a seemingly one-off collaboration between Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie and visual artist Christina Vantzou, has gained a second life in 2011 with a full slate of connected titles. I’ve previously written about Sleepingdog’s With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields, which sees Wiltzie working with Dead Texan guest vocalist Chantal Acda. More recently Kranky issued A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s self-titled debut, an inspired meeting of pianist Dustin O’Halloran and Wiltzie that features album art from Vantzou. O’Halloran’s 2011 solo album Lumiere includes Wiltzie on guitar, while Vantzou contributed visuals to his live shows and put together a mesmerizing video for “We Move Lightly.” Completing the circle, Vantzou has emerged from behind the projector with her solo debut on Kranky, No. 1, which explores semi-symphonic arrangements with the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra.

That No. 1 explores somewhat similar terrain as The Dead Texan is both understandable and a bit of a surprise. Vantzou’s musical involvement in that album was limited to a few vocal spots and mellotron performances, with much greater emphasis placed on the accompanying DVD. But a 2007 collaborative tour between Sparklehorse and The Dead Texan encouraged her musical side (covered nicely in this interview with The Muse in Music), which resulted in the long-gestating No. 1. It would have been entirely plausible for Vantzou’s solo work to lean closer to the slow-drip pop of Chantal Acda’s more straightforward Sleepingdog tracks (or something entirely different), but if anything, No. 1 leans further away from the occasional dream-pop leanings explored on The Dead Texan into glistening, amorphous drone symphonies.

The process behind the album is enlightening. Vantzou spent three years writing and recording a demo version of No. 1 as 45-minute-long piece, which involved layering keyboard tracks, exploring her options in available synth samples, and pulling textures from voice, instruments, and records. She then brought the demo version to Minna Choi of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, who added live instrumentation and altered some arrangements. Finally, Adam Wiltzie helped mix the finished product, which merges Vantzou’s original textures with strings and horns.

This process isn’t hidden in No. 1. The layers are apparent, especially when one side of the equation overtakes the other. The synth textures of “Prelude for Juan” billow to the surface, while the affecting cello vibrato on “Super Interlude Pt. 2” cuts through the mix. More often there’s an uncertain balance between the two, with the smudged synth palettes sounding like distant echoes of the live instruments. It’s a telling difference from Stars of the Lid’s exquisitely mannered performances on And Their Refinement of the Decline and Kyle Bobby Dunn’s precisely refracted drones on Ways of Meaning; No. 1 matches their overall minimalism but not the starkness of its creation.

This difference means that No. 1 relies more on textural dynamics than most records in the Stars of the Lid universe. There are moments, especially in “Super Interlude Pt. 2” and “Your Changes Have Been Submitted,” that use dramatic chord changes to spine-tingling effect (a tried-and-true tactic in Wiltzie and McBride’s oeuvre), but more often emotion comes from hearing something emerge that you didn’t think was there, like the ghostly vocals in “Joggers.” No. 1 is an album of discovery for both composer and listener, a duality that’s often expressed but rarely rings as true or essential as it does here.

If Christina Vantzou’s solo debut and the three other Dead Texan-related records from 2011 aren’t enough to check out, Vantzou will follow up No. 1 with a remix album/DVD. I’m particularly interested to see how Vantzou the visual artist comments on Vantzou the burgeoning musician; videos for “Homemade Mountains” and “Prelude for Juan” gives an early taste of patterns overtaking colors. It will also be interesting to see if Vantzou’s future recordings maintain the same sense of discovery now that she’s more familiar with the processes, but that’s a debate for another year.