Tess Wiley began her music career in earnest seven years ago as a member of Sixpence None the Richer. Not to be confused with tow-headed lead singer Leigh Nash, Wiley was the brainy brunette who contributed voice, guitar and writing to This Beautiful Mess and Tickets to a Prayer Wheel. By the time Sixpence had scored a major hit with the ubiquitous “Kiss Me”, Wiley was long gone, making hit-and-miss recordings with alt-rock Phantasmic and lending her unique vocal talents to Velour 100’s magnificent 1997 album Of Color Bright. She married photographer Christian Roth and resettled in his native Germany, making a few indie recordings under the heading “Tess Wiley and Her Orchestra”. But for the past couple of years it appeared that her somewhat subterranean career was on hold.
The appearance of Rainy Day Assembly is a muted epiphany. Like a messianic prophet of antiquity, Tess Wiley delivers a life-shaping message without formal sanction. It is hard to imagine an artist of Wiley’s ability and, yes, good looks working without major label backing. Perhaps this was calculated; the cover art features a waist-down shot of Wiley, her face and hands (forensic identifying parts) hidden from view. If the point was to allow the music to stand on its own merit, she has succeeded convincingly. The question is whether the word will get out to a larger audience.
Listening to Rainy Day Assembly is like watching a world-class gymnast perform on the balance beam — 30 years ago. Instead of one death-defying trick after another, there is deliberate but poised execution, graceful movements given full extension and amplitude. There was no need for Wiley to take risks with this album. Her talent has matured to level where her writing and singing can carry the day without resorting to novelties. Her cabernet voice is vaguely reminiscent of Dusty Springfield, only brighter. The production quality is delicate and flawless despite the disc having been recorded in the back of Effanel’s mobile trailer. What emerges is a transfigured Tess Wiley with an album that is simply too good to be classified as alt-pop, and maybe a little too intelligent for the mainstream.
Tess Wiley’s gift is her ability to express internal and relational misgivings while maintaining a subtle degree of artistic detachment. Her heart is an open book here, but her delivery doesn’t distract or come across as morose. On the breezy title track Wiley writes, “you sit there while I speak / just staring at the floor / this rainy day assembly / is going nowhere in this forum of usual apathy.” But the music evokes cloud-gazing, sparing the listener any immediate sense of heaviness. On the gorgeous “Breathe”, Wiley displays child-like vulnerability, her heart-melting voice singing, “be with me, breathe with me / I’m turning blue until I can be with you.” The song probably reflects her separation from Roth during recording sessions in New York, but knowing Wiley’s background it might also express a spiritual longing. The catchy “Skinny Little Line” is laden with philosophical ambling: “I tried to teach me dull perfection / I hope I never learn.” It unveils an artist who is accessible but more affecting than one realizes at first glance. It’s like pondering the heart-musings of a mere friend, then finding oneself falling unexpectedly in love days later.
Great albums have a watershed moment, a redefining pinnacle. On Rainy Day Assembly that point is reached with “Untitled”, a tortured account of grappling with a lover’s past relationship. In a microcosm of the whole album, Wiley bounds back and forth between calm acceptance and boiling anxiety: “I trust you better than I know you / how unaware am I? . . . if you’ve ever had a good day with her / I don’t want to know / spend all your talking on me / how do I excite you? / I know I expect too much.” As one who has been on the receiving end of such anguished thinking aloud, I can assure the reader this is compelling as well as maddening. From soft, disperse piano notes, the song builds along a simple two-chord structure that ratchets up the tension with each verse, adding strings and power guitar chords along the way. As the six-minute track erupts in its major key finale, Wiley offers her most impassioned vocals, and the song dies back into disparate piano fragments. “Untitled” is a high-impact song, a weighty piece of “Stairway to Heaven” proportion, where Tess Wiley truly finds her voice.
Which is why her dismount from this set, the heavily techno “Out of My Head”, seems almost ungainly by comparison (the lyric contains the ironic assertion to “step lightly”). Notwithstanding, Rainy Day Assembly is a beautiful a reintroduction to a known yet unknown artist. The disc can be ordered from Tess Wiley’s web site (www.wileyrock.de), affording the chance to savor her talent before the record companies realize what they’ve been missing.