The best experimental pop acts make music feel like their plaything; SPELLLING makes it feel like her witch’s poppet. Since her 2017 debut album ‘Pantheon Of Me’, Oakland, California’s Tia Cabral has been conjuring haunted synth-pop records that make soul, lounge pop and electronica move awkwardly at her will. She’s called her music “faith freak folk”. If Massive Attack ventured into the underworld in search of their very own Solange, they’d drag SPELLING from the pit.
Most off-kilter electronic acts only sink deeper into the synthetic depths in search of new sounds to debase, but SPElLLING’s third album is more of a grand statement of organic authenticity. An hour-long double, and far more melodic and accessible than her previous murky menacings, ‘The Turning Wheel’ finds Cabral keeping synth lines to a minimum in favour of broad classical strokes: chamber strings, mariachi horns, bursts of lightning crash timpani and full-on technicolour orchestrations featuring 31 socially distanced musicians. At times it feels like an off-Broadway arthouse musical called Bad Trip Ballads, at others a hallucinogenic melding of The Wizard Of Oz and PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’.
The curtain lifts on ‘Little Deer’, a jazz pop twirl in which Cabral is reincarnated from an innocent victim of the hunt over a plush ‘60s lounge pop backing. Such theatrical set-pieces dot a record split into two acts – ‘Above’ and ‘Below’ – like plot points. ‘The Future’ skips by on will-o’-the-wisp synths, Beirut horns and West End strings, Cabral looking back on a lost lover from some sci-fi setting.
‘Emperor With An Egg’ indulges in Sufjan Stevens-level chamber pop, while seven-minute centrepiece ‘Boys At School’ is a traumatic childhood flashback cased in mournful mariachi and impish future soul, even venturing into Pink Floyd guitar wails in the closing minutes. “I hate the boys at school, they never play the rules” she laments, but she’s one to talk.
The more gothic ‘Below’ half of the album offers the cranky carnival vibe of future soul song ‘Magic Act’ and ‘Queen Of Wands’ discards its initial haunted waltz to spend most of its five minutes twisting ‘80s electro-pop into lost segments from the Dawn Of The Dead soundtrack.
But, in the ‘Above’ half at least, Cabral seems more interested in manipulating classic pop forms than horror-flick moods; witness ‘Always’ feeding retro ‘60s pop through a particularly clinical laptop and coming out sounding like an android ABBA, or ‘Turning Wheel’, a gorgeous Beatledelic gospel peace anthem with a very heavy cold. As a left-field lurker, SPELLLING was a sinister figure. Tapping at the windows of accessibility, she’s dangerous.
Release date: June 24
Record label: Sacred Bones