ALBUM REVIEW: Vita and the Woolf – Anna Ohio

9/10

Vita and the Woolf - Anna Ohio

Philadelphia born Vita and the Woolf is singer-songwriter, musician and producer Jennifer Pague. When Pague initially started the synth-pop/ indie project Vita and the Woolf back in 2012, it was a seven-piece ensemble and went through various band members and changes until August 2014 when Pague met drummer Adam Shumski, her “angel” as she has referred to him in previous press interviews. Shumski’s dynamic drumming along with Pague’s anthemic, operatic vocals have proven to be a potent mix and the duo perform with additional stage members to expand their already powerful live performances.

For those of you unfamiliar with Vita and the Woolf, the band title was chosen by Pague whilst she was studying in Europe in 2012 and was inspired by the love relationship between novelists Vita Sackville and Virginia Woolf. It also sums up the adventurous, wild and romantic aspects of Pague herself.
The music of Vita and the Woolf is very vocal driven with understandable comparisons to Florence Welch. Pague’s vocal has a haunting quality to it, choral and layered and is supported skilfully by Shumski’s spirited drumming.

Since releasing their impressive 2017 album Tunnels, the duo has toured the US numerous times, sold-out Johnny Brenda’s,(a notable live music venue that showcases Philadelphia’s thriving indie rock scene), played XPNFest and most recently, Pague collaborated with The Cure’s Roger O’Donnell on his classical solo album 2 Ravens where she contributed both lyrically and vocally. “Out of State” is a warm, textured atmospheric start. Tangled, spirals of guitar and a rich, smooth vocal from Pague combine to vividly portray a picture of a hot, burning sun, of disembarking a greyhound bus and arriving in the middle of nowhere, of somewhere. It’s really stirring but over too soon! At just under two minutes long, it’s an intoxicating tease of what lies ahead for the listener.

“Confetti” is one of the key songs in the story of Anna Ohio. Pague wrote “Confetti” after she moved to LA, leaving her hometown, Philadelphia. She was in a hot room as the sun was setting, feeling nostalgic about old friends. She sings: “I’ve been thinking ‘bout my East Coast friends and how I really miss ‘em bad”. Pague’s honest lyrics tell of the disillusionment she feels in her new city: “Did I really think that cocaine would line the streets and mountain tops? / Did I really think confetti would hold my head up as I walked?” There is an easy rhythm to the song at the start – thanks to the understated guitar work and Pague’s low-key vocal. However – shining, shimmers of electric guitar throw the song wide open mid-way and then the track is layered with rolling drums and twinkles of keys – absolutely gorgeous. At the climax, Pague’s vocal becomes distorted and unrestrained, before those simple guitar notes return to close the song.

Current single “Home” feels like a song of abandonment, of feeling free. It’s got a great, uplifting vibe to it. Sparkling synth keys, an unwavering drum beat and Pagues’ big, belty voice in its chorus intersperse with the more delicate verses. “It’s ok, take my hand, it’s easy” she sings and you believe it. This is one of those songs where you pull down the soft top of the car, on an open highway with the wind blowing through your hair. On “Kentucky” the guitars are as dusty as the dirt tracks that spring to mind when listening to it. Echoey synth notes, shivers of cymbal and slow, lazy snare drums combine beautifully to create a hazy image of this southern state. Added to that, there is holiness to Pague’s fragile and folky vocal. The overall atmospherics of the song produces a picture of a low sun and shimmering heat waves and if this song were a colour, it would be burnt orange. One of the standout songs of the album.

“Operator” was the first single release and is quite simply dazzling. Pague’s vocal takes centre stage but listeners should pay attention to the beautiful instrumentation around the vocal. It’s cleverly crafted to resemble a feeling of floating in outer space – an intergalactic feel. There are lush layers of electronic bass lines and the song is expansive and vivid. Whilst the back story to the song is simple enough ( it’s about Pague finding her dog a new home after moving to Los Angeles) she goes on to say: “It’s about dealing with those emotions of cutting ties, making sacrifices, and leaving behind the past in order to move on to a new place in life.

“Feet” opens with slinky synths and delightful electronic bubble sounds. Pague’s vocal is smooth and self-assured but it’s all about the electronica on this track. It has a brilliant strut to it, with delicious squeaks and buzzes of synth sounds and smacks of “stick” all underpinned with an edgy electronic drone of bass. “Mess Up” is a synth-heavy slow burner with clean production and a trademark massive Vita chorus. Pague says it “is about recognizing one’s strength, getting over imposter syndrome, overcoming self-doubt and growing out of habits that no longer serve you.” It’s certainly an empowering song with the chorus portraying strength: “With my big muscles and big tendons and shoulders/ With my big mouth but lovely heart, I got shoulders/With my big muscles and big tendons/ And Shoulders/They control me”. The track is quiet in the verses and mighty in the chorus – encapsulating perfectly those emotional highs and lows – those feelings we have of feeling invincible one day and insecure the next.

“Machine” carries a fizzing energy with brooding synth lines and upbeat, lively drum beats. This is the Florence and the Machine number – a powerhouse track – but Pague makes it her own of course, larger than life on the chorus and toning it down on the verses, her classical training very much coming into play. Because Pague likes to use vintage synthesizers in her music, the bass-y synth lines have such a great tone and are appealingly retro.

The intriguing “Auntie Anne’s Waitress” opens with a distorted buzz of synth before glittering electric key swirls and easy, light piano arrangements create an unexpected middle of the road sound, very reminiscent of something you would hear in the ‘80s. It’s lush lounge music but with Pague’s beguiling and bewitching vocal touches of “Hey, hey, heyyyyy” it gives the song a more contemporary sound. It’s an interesting track with Pague’s voice dancing around the instrumentation. Clashes of cymbal and drum ramp the song up a gear before the squeals and pops of electronica close the song.

Final track “Paris” is pure chamber-pop, almost baroque and Pague’s vocal is velvety with airy inflections and bittersweet lyrics. The synth is warm and rich and a cello towards the end adds an orchestral depth whilst remaining subdued and subtle along with the haunting programmed sounds of strings.

So, it’s been three years since Tunnels and the release of Anna Ohio does not disappoint. Whilst Anna Ohio is a fictional character, Anna Ohio, the album is a real journey of self-discovery for Pague. The album’s interconnected songs tell a self-referential story about a flawed but strong character striving for reinvention and is a patient and hook-filled listen. The subtle guitar work and the inventive drum patterns of Shumski give the songs a unique rhythmic depth.

Anna Ohio is a personal pop record of electric imagery and vulnerability. It’s a beautiful blend of empowering anthems and open-hearted diary entries. The mellow moments support the explosive ones; the loving lyrical details support the big themes. It is an open and honest album that disregards any particular genre in favour of pure expression and is one of those albums where every song finishes before you are ready to let it go.

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