Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs

Band: Chelsea Wolfe
Album: Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs
Best song: “Flatlands.” Definitely. Though, “Gold,” a bonus digital track, is really really good.
Worst song: I’m not as hot on “Our Work Was Good,” though it’s a good song.

It’s no secret I value vocals as an instrument more than I value lyrics; I’ve twice used the term “I’d listen to [insert name here] read the phone book” in regards to singers in this space (once about Chris Cornell, once about Chan Marshall). This is the reason I’ve not gotten as into Modest Mouse as I probably should have, it’s the reason I’ve never fully gotten into death growl music and, most importantly, it’s the reason I tend to prefer female singers to male singers.

Knowing that I’m a big Chelsea Wolfe fan, a friend of mine asked how Unknown Rooms was, the only thing I could say is that it’s not a superlative album, but its strength is in Wolfe’s vocals. That may have been oversimplifying, of course, but it does speak to the instrument Wolfe possesses.

Not to get too wonky, but the album’s name, Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs, is a good indication of the type of record this is. It is a collection of songs, not a concept-y record about armageddon or a doom record. The record is songs Wolfe had written before, with some as rerecordings of said songs. Similarly, it is an acoustic one, with nothing to rival “Demons” for electric fury or “Noorus” for raucous hard rock. It’s a quiet, beautiful record, owing as much to open spaces as it does to Wolfe’s guitar work and heavenly vocals.

Unknown Rooms is nothing like The Grime and the Glow or Ἀποκάλυψις, aesthetically . The record is almost entirely acoustic, with some electrified pianos dotting last year’s one-off single “Sunstorm.” The record is not dotted with dissonance and it doesn’t arrive with church organs and screams, as Ἀποκάλυψις does. For those who prefer Chelsea Wolfe’s music to be the doom-folk — a term I believe she made up, apt as it may be — you are probably out of luck. There’s little in the way of doubled guitars and deep keyboards or thumping rhythms, as those aspects dot The Grime and the Glow. Rather, it’s a record of inside voice songs that explore the existentialism so very familiar to Wolfe’s fans.

With that said, it is — save for the bonus tracks on the digital versions — a near-perfectly engineered and produced record. Working with Wolfe’s voice and aesthetic, I imagine, is work for a seasoned pro, but Wolfe chose bandmate Ben Chisholm to co-produce. They found the perfect balance for an artist who relies as much on her exquisite voice as the atmospheric arrangements to put out her vision.

Take “The Way We Used To,” for example. Originally recorded for a compilation (Last Day of Summer Sessions), the song was a capella. Rerecorded for Unknown Rooms, Wolfe added a drum rhythm and full acoustic arrangement. The song expands and takes on more urgency, as the lyrics tell of a the ending span of relationship (The title comes from the brilliantly sung/stated lyric: “We don’t work the way we used to/your face has changed”). The arrangement is nuanced and layered, with guitars and keys overlaying one another, all while Wolfe’s doubled and tripled harmonies spur the song along. It’s a lovely way to make an a cappella song into a full band one, as the music mirrors the vocals.

I imagine it’s because Wolfe’s general doomness, but the album reviews have used a lot of terminology about the negative space on the album. Pitchfork said “its nine songs capture and sustain free-floating fear and menace” and Tiny Mix Tapes mentioned “the nerve-racking space of silence” in its review. This is both understandable and not very useful. I get that Wolfe’s previous records were more doomish — though, let’s be honest, it’s not like she was putting out a record like the Pallbearer one –, but that doesn’t mean her acoustic record is going to be something that sounds like acoustic Neurosis.

In fairness, yes, Unkown Rooms does have some of the ominous stuff that Wolf so perfected on earlier records like “Pale on Pale” and “Halfsleeper.” “Boyfriend,” ostensibly a cover, hangs on nearly every other line, while “Hyper Oz” has the afterlife-y vibe of a major key “Movie Screen.” But, for the most part, this is a straight ahead acoustic record. “Appalachia” has lyrics that are a bit scarier than a normal acoustic record, as she describe the titular region in sparse lyrics (credit to Wolfe for making the best song ever to use the word “anthracite”). But it’s hardly a song that sounds foreboding. “Spinning Centers” has harp-sounding arpeggios and a religious lyric set, filled with Wolfe’s uniquely soprano intoning “Only dream of me” over soft strings. “Sunstorm,” released last year, is the most lively of the songs on the record, albeit one that is about a friend’s suicide. “Flatlands,” the album’s best song, refers to a home that Wolfe loves, full of “salty seas,” while eschewing the material world (Second line of the lyrics: “I never cared about money and all its friends”). It’s a spiritual song without the trappings of god, death or fear. RAther, it’s back to nature and the expanse of the world.

I want flower fields
I want salty seas
I want flatlands soft and steady breeze
bringing scents of lined-up orchard trees
dripping heavy with pears and dancing leaves

The notion of genre can be helpful; I don’t want to shit all over it. I use it all the time in this space, as it helps us organize an ever-expanding musical landscape. But, in the case of Chelsea Wolfe, it’s constraining. This is someone who tours with post-metal bands, but puts out an album of acoustic numbers. It’s someone who reads Ayn Rand and voice huge support for Obama in the 2012 election. People are complex, even singers.

No, Unknown Rooms isn’t Ἀποκάλυψις. That doesn’t mean it’s not wonderful and a beautiful, expansive listen.

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    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

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