Before we can even discuss this week’s best albums, there is something that needs to be addressed: band names. Band names are bad now. I honestly cannot remember the last time I heard of a new artist and thought, “oh, that’s a cool name.” It just doesn’t happen anymore. Instead: half-assed puns, cutesy wordplay, utterly banal names of non-evocative inanimate objects (looking at you, Car Seat Headrest). It’s reached crisis level. Now: Maybe the Bay Area singer and producer Chrystia Cabral — a great name! — has deep personal reasons for using the name SPELLLING. Maybe it’s a cosmically mystical thing. But as far as I can tell, it’s just the word “spelling,” intentionally misspelled. That’s it. That’s the whole joke. It’s not the worst offender in the bad-band-name Olympics, but a name that goofy can only be a hindrance when you’re making genuinely fascinating music. And SPELLLING is making genuinely fascinating music.
As SPELLLING, Cabral makes music that’s basically impossible to categorize. She plays around with all sorts of dark and vaporous sounds: gothed-out horror-movie synth textures, new-wave bloop-riffs, queasy ambient sputters, bluesy squelches, creeped-out smooth-jazz saxophones, pillowy ’80s-R&B bass-riffs, spindly indie-rock guitar-murmurs. As a singer, Cabral is rooted in soul, and she’s capable of bending notes with astonishing force and conviction. But there’s also a lot of Kate Bush or Björk or Arthur Russell in the way she’ll let her voice float off into the ether. Her songs don’t tend to be structured in any recognizable way; instead, they work as floating meditations. Her whole darkly mesmeric sound is entirely her own. Nobody really sounds like her.
Cabral recorded her first album, 2017’s self-released Pantheon Of Me, at home in her Berkeley apartment. And while she’s got an actual label now, the new Mazy Fly is almost entirely a solo affair, with Cabral singing, writing, producing, and playing almost everything herself. (About half the tracks have other musicians on violin, percussion, guitar, or saxophone.) And she pushes her sound, and her voice, in ways that nobody else would think to even attempt.
Consider the way Cabral quotes Paul and Linda McCartney’s loopy 1971 hit “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” on her single “Haunted Water.” When the McCartneys were singing about “hands across the water, hands across the sky,” it was a cryptic goof. When Cabral uses those same words, she’s singing about the legacy of slaves being shipped across the ocean on the Middle Passage, about the “haunted water” that those ships left behind. That’s a crushingly dark and sad image.
But when Cabral quotes another song that Paul McCartney co-wrote, she does something very different with it. On the languidly slippery “Real Fun,” she throws out references to a few musical geniuses of decades past: “We’re gonna sway to ‘Holiday’ / Groove to ‘Billie Jean’ / ‘Raspberry Beret’ / And ride a yellow submarine.” She’s singing from the perspective of an alien visiting Earth, finding inspiration in the music that these Earthlings have made.
The fact that these two images can coexist on the same album — that they can even seem cohesive — is nothing short of miraculous. With Mazy Fly, Cabral has created this hazy soundworld where she can follow her thoughts down just about any aesthetic rabbit hole, where anything and everything will make sense. It’s a gorgeous and evocative and provocative record, and it points to a future where Cabral could pretty much do anything. So maybe she didn’t do herself any favors when she decided to call herself SPELLLING. But if you dismiss this album on name alone, you won’t be doing yourself any favors, either.
Mazy Fly is out 2/22 on Sacred Bones.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Offset’s as-yet-untitled, as-yet-unheard solo debut.
• Julia Jacklin’s dreamy, twangy indie-popper Crushing.
• And The Kids’ fuzzily twee When This Life Is Over.
• Bellows’ inward-looking pop opus The Rose Gardener.
• Diät’s dark postpunker Postive Disintegration.
• Kehlani’s exposed-nerve R&B mixtape While We Wait.
• Thelma’s patient and clever The Only Thing.
• Nakane’s widescreen, personal pop album You Will Not Die.
• Sleaford Mods’ latest Cockney blurt Eton Alive.
• Telekinesis’ soothing indie rocker Effluxion.
• The Claypool Lennon Delirium’s psychedelic playground South Of Reality.
• Lil Pump’s SoundCloud-rap tantrum Harverd Dropout.
• Nasheim’s atmopsheric black metaller Jord och ask.
• Traveler’s self-titled old-school power-metal album.