Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s background is mainly, though not entirely, in the performing arts; her travels have seen her perform at an impressive array of galleries and experimental music and writing festivals across the continental US, and Searchlight Needles was recorded variously in Montana, Nevada, Dakota and North Carolina, with an ever increasing circle of musical associates providing electronics, percussion and vocals to multi-instrumentalist Wagner’s own music and songs.
So, this is very much more than a collection of guitar ballads: first track “Little Ice Age” is a near bewildering mix of theremin and tambourine, with Wagner’s breathless vocal grasping for the lyric, and while The Cabinet Of Natural Curiosities do sound as if they are, in a very real sense, lost in the big bad woods, Jasmine and her friends make it back home in one piece, and the wilfull experimentalism is (temporarily) put to one side while the Cabinet take up more conventional approaches to songwriting. “Sun” is a lively yet delicate combination of expertly picked guitar and Wagner’s multitracked xylophone and recorder, and “For Sparrow” a less involved sounding song. “Moon” is built around a slide guitar that seems to emanate solely from the dark forest of Wagner’s imagination, and the bells and chimes that make up the lengthy intro of “Glass” possess suitably opaque qualities, the track itself a near 12 minute collage of drums and reverberating traffic, and while “Grass” is a softly sensual ballad played over a backdrop of birdsong and distant voices, the Cabinet stretch themselves nearly too far with “Fabulist Decay”, a chaotic wall-of-noise experiment that sits uneasily next to ‘Black Water’, an uptempo bluegrass number reminiscent of Lambchop, or perhaps Sleater-Kinney performing an acoustic set. The contradictions at the heart of Searchlight Needles continue to provoke each other right to the album’s end.
Would we listen to Jasmine Dreame Wagner if she and her associates were to just make an Alt.Country album? I think we would. The electronics often overtake and occasionally subsume the songwriting and vocals, and the Cabinet are themselves committed ProTool enthusiasts, while Jasmine Dreame Wagner seems only just assertive enough to make herself heard amongst the squalling and hissing of her backing tracks, and I need to wonder if Searchlight Needles will find an audience away from the Performing Arts world that it springs from. I do need to mention the album packaging though, a grey envelope printed with the image of a winter sun setting behind a pine tree. Original, and definitely preferable to just another plastic case or wallet; the type of originality that a group such as The Cabinet Of Natural Curiosities can bring to their music, and which a wider audience than that of the local arthouse will always require.