PHENO - DRAGON YEAR (EP, ELECTRIC EAR RECORDS)
Will you forgive me if I start with an etymology gloss? It’s a cheap shot but it just feels right. Okay: the prefix “Pheno” (as in “phenotype”) means “to show,” and comes from the Greek phaino, meaning “shining” or “I shine.” The new EP from Canberra/Sydney based guitarist and songwriter Jess Green, aka PHENO, is nothing if not shiny, and bristles with vivid sounds that want to show themselves. Listening through, it doesn’t so much feel like Green has laboriously layered these sounds on top of one another (although she has). It sounds like they’ve burst spontaneously from the earth, and Green has deftly wrangled them into something coherent and useful - like a masterful drover mustering cattle.
Opening track ‘There Are Voices Out There’ invites us onomatopoeically into Pheno’s world with a dense tapestry of vocal hocketing. It’s the kind of hyperreal sung-sound you might be familiar with from Dirty Projectors tracks like ‘Remade Horizon’, or French medieval music if that’s your bag. This technique, rather curious to the average ear, is neatly tempered by the addition of a standard rock drum pattern - so the whole thing has a kind of familiar-yet-new sensibility. A lead vocal joins in, transmitting intriguing and oblique lyrics via a simple do-re-mi-re-do melody that brings to mind the sub-titular “naive melody” from Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be The Place.’
Track Two. Beyond its great title, ‘Shadow In The Water’ is also a brilliant song. Jostling jigsaws of muted guitar and percussion, overlaid with assured but restrained vocals. And - most distinctively - a jubilant, syncopated horn section. Returning to the lineage of Talking Heads, this one reminds me of David Byrne and St. Vincent’s collaborativealbum Love this Giant, its idiosyncratic blending of angular rock, globally-informed rhythms and marching band swagger. I reckon it’d also appeal to fans of Pikelet, Tune-Yards and other purveyors of densely tessellating, urgent bedroom pop. The tune might be the EP’s standout track.
Which is not to say that anything thereafter feels like a let down. The title-track centrepiece is an extra exuberant offering, with cowbell rattles and giddily effected guitar. It’s got one of the best curveball choruses I’ve heard in ages: a gothic intake of breath, juxtaposed to great effect against buoyant verses that recall the post-punk sunshine of Blondie or Tom Tom Club.
‘A Little Thing,’ conversely, rests upon a simple see-saw of two guitar chords. The lyrics and vocal trajectory are what gives this tune its unique shape and character. The melody is unpredictable, darting, folky in its modulations and chromatic passing notes. By far the record’s most understated moment, it’s also one of its most addictive.
Green soon pulls off a prog-rock manoeuvre by inserting a “reprise” of the opening track - namely, its hocketing chorale of voices.
In practice, it’s simple gesture, by no means bombastic. But it has the noteworthy effect of tying a knot around the EP thus far, ushering us gracefully towards the grand finale, a track auspiciously entitled ‘Slingshot.’
‘Slingshot’ has an upbeat swing feel, which typically isn’t very rock and roll, but Pheno makes it work with a half-time backbeat and (once again) plenty of tightly interlocking layers. Upon reflection, I think I’m copping echoes of Nile Rogers, Battles, Kimbra and Annie Clark all at once. But after an EP’s worth of material that reaches out to grasp abundant reference points, I’m sufficiently immersed to simply say to myself - this sounds like Pheno.
Dragon Year has been described as “art pop” and it really is, according to the most literal evocations of those words. Paint splattering passionately onto a canvas; shapes, and then images, coming BANG into existence. It’s an extraordinary 22 minutes of songcraft, achieving in an EP format what many albums desperately grapple for. A coherent arc, a thrilling diversity of sounds, a listening journey that makes perfect sense without ever giving away its next move. With dauntingly talented bandmates Alyx Dennison (Kyü, Richard in your Mind, Alyx Dennison) and Bonnie Stewart (Bonniesongs) in tow, there’s little doubt the live show is just as powerful. And, in conclusion, I’m gonna hold back on making a “pheno-menal” joke. But please, do listen to this record.