A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing

Nov 17, 2022
Web Exclusive

By Mark Moody


Take equal parts Adrianne Lenker’s and Daniel Johnston’s open-eyed earnestness, along with a healthy dose of early Chicagoland musical grab-baggers Shrimp Boat and you might come up with something that sounds roughly like Tenci. Fronted by songwriter, singer, and guitarist, Jess Shoman, the group gels considerably on their sophomore album, but also remains deliciously unhinged. Driven more by emotive intuition than anything passing for conventional songwriting, or singing for that matter, there are moments of blissed out glory on A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing that more than make up for its few less compelling moments.

If you haven’t heard the group’s prior album, 2020’s My Heart Is An Open Field, the opening track here, “Shapeshifter,” makes for the perfect taste of what Tenci and Shoman have on offer. Shoman emerges from some steamy, rattle and clank, Tom Waits-ian underworld to declare, “I’m a flaming lake, with a waning moon.” The very brief track showcases Shoman’s fluid vocal approach. From a shaky uncertainty to a more confident carry of the melody, Shoman’s range comes into focus, while the track also introduces multi-instrumentalist Curtis Oren’s woodwind contributions. On the following “Vanishing Coin,” Shoman’s springy coil and recoil vocals are met at their mark by the band’s freewheeling approach.

The album’s best moments come on folky spin-outs like “Cold Dirty Water” and the twisty beauty of “Sharp Wheel,” where the threats of careening out of control are ever present but never fully acted upon. Oren’s sax work on the latter is a mix of atonal notes and high flying melody, which mirrors Shoman’s voice, with both being pushed ably along by Joseph Farago’s animated drumming. And album highlight, “Two Cups,” with its corrosive guitar line that becomes increasingly frazzled as it goes, would make for song of the year material in some rightfully aligned alternate universe.

Less focused sketches, like “The Ball Spins” and the heart wrenching “Swallow Me Whole, Blue,” aren’t as interesting as most of what’s on display here. Making the longer and improvisational songs such as “Be” and “Sour Cherries” ones that are more appreciated on repeated listens in spite of pushing the envelope of being easy on the ear. And including the nursery rhyme cadence of open-hearted folk songs such as “Great Big Elephant” and the closing familial reflection of “Memories,” further adds a welcome diversity to the album.

Like a child in rain boots stomping in mud puddles after a storm, A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing is chaotic and messy as hell, but equally beautiful for the joyful and unbridled moments it creates. You never know quite what is going to come out of Shoman’s mouth or how one song might lead to the next. But this is less to do with Tenci being a band in its formative stages and more to them flaunting their ability to go wherever, whenever they want. (www.tenci.band)

Author rating: 7/10

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