“…variations on a theme showing the endless depth of shadows and all the scattered beauty a glimmer of light can illuminate.” – Ian Maleney on Katie Kim‘s Cover & Flood. It’s fitting that a child’s voice opens ‘Birds Fly Low‘, the first track on Cover & Flood. The young voice is pretty much unintelligible as its word-less roving melody emerges from the noise surrounding it. It’s off kilter and intriguing, innocent and unknowable. Eventually her phrases repeat and it begins to become familiar, though no more understandable than ever before. The space it exists in increases in size and density as we slowly zoom out like a camera, gradually losing the details in the distance. It is in this way that it serves as the perfect opening scene for what unravels as an irresistible and mysterious immersion in aural mis-en-scene.
By the time ‘Charlie‘ – the first song proper – starts, the prologue has done its job and you’ve already found your feet in this very particular landscape. The loops of ominous notes and spare percussion maintain their swamp-footed waltz throughout as the delicate and unnerving vocals creep over the top. Modal scales on brass tickle the edge of the picture. Snake rattles and chants slither out of the background for snatched half-moments of exposure before a major chord appears from the fog, the curtains get drawn back and before you know where you are, it’s morning. You feel a weak ray of sunlight on your cheek. It’s disarming. You’re confused and happy to be out of it. You know you’ll go back though; it’s a charming underworld, enticing and dangerous with its edge-of-earshot temptations.
This mode continues for the rest of the album, variations on a theme showing the endless depth of shadows and all the scattered beauty a glimmer of light can illuminate. It’s an album of bits and pieces patched together, each imbued with the same sense of wonderment at unknown things. The sounds are small, more often than not, and the smallest elements seem as important and as loved as the greater swathes of sound to be found in the longer songs. ‘Pause‘ is one of those longer, more obviously finished songs, a melancholic wash of heavy piano chords surrounded by swells of strings and the saddest of harmonies. Again it’s in waltz time, a rhythm that suits the mood of the album as a whole. The songs that employ it come across like memories of old dances with someone loved held close. ‘Pause’ is the close up, the tear running down the cheek, wrinkles around the eyes captured in heart-breaking detail. “I saw entry lines around your face, they’re new and show where someone tool your place,” go the opening lines and that sense of displacement and loss permeates the song to its core. It’s the saddest moment here, a genuine pause before the light seeps back and the sepia tones are washed out in favour of something a little more colourful.
The colour comes first from the surprising marimba tones of ‘All Living Things‘. From here to the finish, the patterns become clearer and the songs run together almost as one. The bed of each track is a darkness of chord, a harmonic heaviness that pervades almost every second of listening. While this feeling slowly makes its way into your bones, it’s the melodies that will rouse and stun. The moment on ‘Heavy Lightning‘ where the falling vocal meets the sliding guitar note searching for the sky. When she says the word “Johanna”. When the drums first hit in the distance of ‘Dimmer‘ and the vocals rise to meet them, a sound like some noble act of unknown bravery in the dawn light. ‘Fake Your Death‘ walked the line between light and dark with a whistler-friendly melody relaying the darkest of thoughts, “I’ll make your bruises hurt better than your heart does”.
The part where the voices fade on ‘Your Mountains‘. ‘Little Dragons‘ lives somewhere between trip-hop and Throbbing Gristle. The way ‘Habits‘ closes things out with the simplest of melodies, building from alternating and impossibly high piano notes to tiny swells of noise, never rising beyond a whisper and keeping the vocals out front. “I’m OK with it,” she says at the death and the toy piano keeps those two notes going until the end. There are twenty songs on Cover & Flood, twenty pieces of sound patched together to form an overwhelmingly beautiful whole. It’s a myriad of tones and shadows, an experience that rewards close listening as much as it is great to fall asleep to. It’s as deep as you want or need it to be. New elements peek their way out of the dusk with each new listen and old, forgotten ones eventually return with all the joy that accompanies a meeting with an old friend. It’s an album made for the four sides of vinyl it will appear on, with each flipping of side or changing of disc further building the ritual around listening to it. Noisy, small and half-hidden, it makes no grand gestures or sweeping statements. It is an album confident in itself, as it should be. It will seek no gratification, though it deserves to find it. When Katie Kim’s first record, Twelves, came out, it felt like a one-of-a-kind experience, a moment in time. Cover & Flood is all that her début was and much, much more. It’s stronger and more assured, with every minute detail bearing signs of the loving touch of its creator. A singular achievement and an important record.