New music (and new directions) from Asthmatic Kitty

Julianna Barwick + Helado Negro – Glasslands – May 10th

I used to have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the label Asthmatic Kitty. The music was a bit zany, largely upbeat, and maybe even slightly religious. (Sufjan Stevens of course has a large roll in the label.) So artists like Fol Chen, DM Stith, Half-handed Cloud, Shapes and Sizes, and The Curtains made sense.

But when I found out that Julianna Barwick was on Asthmatic Kitty, I confess I was a bit surprised. Here was a Brooklyn-based artist who specialized in creating complex layers of haunting vocals and sparse instrumentation. There’s nothing really funny about the music. Nothing totally weird. And as far as I can tell, no religious undertones.

That’s about the time when I saw that Helado Negro was also signed to the label. Wow. Spanish vocals? I thought to myself. Interesting. I was definitely curious to learn more. It looks like Asthmatic Kitty is finally taking a step out of its comfort zone. Now, I’m curious to hear more.

Tuesday night’s show at Glasslands marked the record releases for both Helado Negro and Julianna Barwick – two artists who don’t seem to necessarily have a lot in common other than their ties to Asthmatic Kitty.

Helado Negro (photo Eve Sussman)

First up was Helado Negro (“Black Ice Cream”), whose music I had never heard. As a student, I listened to a lot of international music to prevent myself from becoming distracted by the lyrics while writing papers, but in a live setting, it can be difficult for me (former English major) to get a grasp on an artist without knowing the subject matter of the songs. That said, Helado Negro definitely grew on me over the course of the 40-minute set.

Take a listen to “Regresa” from Helado Negro:

Then. Julianna Barwick. I was almost jealous of the people in the crowd who were totally unfamiliar with Barwick’s music. Just imagine if this was your introduction:

What would be going through your head?

Julianna Barwick (photo Jody Rogac)

To me, the thing that’s striking about Barwick’s music is that each layer of vox seems to carry a different emotion, so that by the time she’s done assembling a song, it’s simultaneously mournful, content, hopeful, and full of yearning.

Apart from its technical aspects, describing Barwick’s music poses a challenge. It is something that is best experienced. I  wish I could have seen her perform in Central Presbyterian Church at SXSW. I can only imagine the setting complimented her music perfectly.

In closing, take a look at this video of Barwick making music in her bedroom, courtesy of WNYC.


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"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being


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