Like some disastrous tightrope act, Ashley Paul’s beautifully fragile patches of song – gently quivering, poised in a state of equilibrium – are surrounded by the threat of collapse. Even its spots of explicit beauty (first seen in hushed vocals and cascading guitar petals of “Clouds”) feel destined to lose balance, and those chaotic wails of improvisation for woodwind, string and percussion are always lurking in waiting; lingering somewhere within the ugly un-gated amplifier buzz that cradles every melodic pluck.
The pressure borders on the intolerable on occasion. Paul seems to delight in a taut and dissonant friction; violin bows are treated like serrated saws, dragged across strings and cymbals until they splutter and scream in overtonal discomfort, while woodwind comes in little slithers of forced breath and choked reed. Everything feels ready to snap – the noise is torturously held at the very precipice of catastrophe, kept on a leash that forbids any venture into absolute cathartic explosion.
Her vocals adopt a strange position in amongst all of this – soft and lullaby-esque, snatching loosely at melody without ever becoming too clearly defined. They sound lost and unsure like a re-emergence from coma, restricted to vague breaths of half-sentences, confused and somewhat withdrawn in amongst such unstable and threatening instrumental company. As a listener, I am left waiting hopelessly for clarity to come sweeping over the blur of instability – some sort of glorious, epiphanic eruption that brings everything into sumptuous alignment, alleviating Line The Clouds’ tension with the warmth of simplicity and meaning. It never happens, and agonising though that is, the record is all the more fantastic for it.