“To Keep the Ghost at Bay” opens Clara Engel’s new LP – their 28th release on Bandcamp, out digitally on 5 April – and it gives, no hyperbole, a masterclass in minimalist expansion. The song, like most the pieces on the excellent Hatching Under the Stars, is built around the spacy cycles of a spindly, repeating 4/4 motif on glass-fragile electric guitar and is nudged forward by Engel’s breathy vocal swoon.
Engel is careful with their adornments. They accent their work with a touch of pedal steel, the faintest hint of Hammond, a careful flourish of strings, the outline of what might (or might not be) a kick drum and a kick drum alone – all placed low, low, low in the mix, their faces barely peeking out from below the covers. Engel reaches what, for the sometimes-chilly record, is a kind of fever pitch, moaning off-handedly, “Fly away with me / This tired old world ain’t everything it’s cracked up to be.” You suddenly realize they have surrounded you with the trappings of a mood-staging ensemble, all while retaining the frightening, eavesdropping intimacy of the lone singer-songwriter. Give yourself over to it, and it’s incredible.
The opener sets the bar rather high, but Engel, again and again, rises to the occasion, playing the part of siren over repeating measures that split the difference between Loren Connors and Doctor Came at Dawn-era Bill Callahan. The Connors comparison is apt, as Engel’s phantom blues (they sometimes call them “minimalist holy blues”) often call to mind that guitar-slinger’s gray-period folk with Susan Langille, herself oft tempest-tossed and drowning in the wine-red sea. But Engel, who’s based in Toronto, is a fierce and singular independent force that owns their material and has been delivering this kind of riveting repertoire consistently since their 2006 self-titled debut.
I’ve written this before, but Engel’s work harkens back to mid-20th century ideals of film structuralism, the kind of “narratives” that develop out of apparent stasis. Watch Warhol’s “static-shot” Empire for an hour or two or three, and the passing of a bird or the appearance of an office-window light becomes a major point of focus with its own impregnated sense of drama. Much the same could be said for Engel’s consistently breathtaking work. They lull you in with the carefully recorded and sometimes moribund guitar repetitions, the vocal cues that drip of benzocaine. Repeat, repeat, lull, lull, soothed, soothed. The listener lingers between the bridges like so many dew-laced spiderwebs or gossamer. Then, something like an “accidental” plucking of a harmonic note on the guitar is a seismic event, or the introduction of what might be a bass clarinet is utterly devastating. When Engel, somewhat intuitively, gives up their refrains all together and just sings, lullaby-style, without words on “Preserved in Ice (for Marc Chagall)”, it is beyond riveting or scene-stealing. It brings the world around you to a dead halt.
There likely are detractors of Engel’s music who say it’s too morose or too self-consciously Edward St. John Gorey-esque or too taken, too consumed with the structures and universes it creates. And, yes, people with sunshine-fixated dispositions best look elsewhere. But I dare anyone with a pulse not to be moved nearly to tears by
“Old Feathered Devil”, with its trebly but steady-handed swirl of electric-guitar color, or the smoky cooing and patient violin weeping of “Baby Alligators” or the double-tracked harmony on the chorus of “Seven Minutes Past Sunrise”.
The fact that Engel gets their hooks so deep into the sentiment of your memory without even breaking a sweat is the first indication that they know what they’re doing with their ghost-tunes. So, you want a pull quote? Put down that beer or those shots of whiskey, the last drag on the cigarette or the pull of a joint, and seek out some real self-medication. You’ll be kicking yourself, just like I am, that you didn’t discover Engel sooner.