It snowed, yesterday. It snowed just a little bit. A few snowflakes fell and wafted around the city like songbirds, finally landing on our shoulders. (We grinned at them.) In the earliest days of winter there’s nothing scary about snow. The cold’s like a long-absent friend, the frost’s like icing, the early dusks just mean that we go out for drinks a little earlier. And it’s here that Phylactery Factory situates itself: here between freeze and frozen, between green and grey, just as the countryside’s turning the colour of a clean sheet of paper. Just as the hinterland becomes white and we feel our first, happy shivers.
Casey Dienel’s wise for her age. Just twenty two and already she knows when to put on her mittens, when to cover her flowerbeds, when to take out the chestnuts and Vince Guaraldi records. She made an album called Wind-Up Canary and released it on Hush in 2006, and it was full of swoops and smiles, small stories, and hooks – as her father had taught her every song ought to have. “I don’t write a lot of songs specifically about me,” she said in a conversation with Daytrotter’s Sean Moeller. “Autobiographical songs are about the last stop.” But in the first flurries you lose sight of the old markers; as winter approaches, the stops all move. I don’t mean that Phylactery Factory is set in a confessional mode: Casey’s voice is more hidden here, crouching amid swish and drone and the wildflower jazz of her friends – and this second LP is not even released under her own name. But whereas Wind-Up Canary was short stories, little Salinger vignettes, Phylactery Factory is filled with dreams, memories, warnings, reminders. Reminders to oneself. This is what a phylactery is: the tefillin worn by devout Jews upon head and arm; a prayer in a box and then knotted into place; the reminder of a one and only.
There are songs of war – “Lindberghs Metal Birds”, “Napoleon at Waterloo”, – songs that sing of war’s tragedy and of our breezy 21st Century apathy. There are songs of peace: “Dreaming of the Plum Trees” is love and gossip, “getting by” and blood “red as dye”, Casey’s comfy keys met by the hot flush of an electric guitar. There are echoes (reminders, even) of Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, John Cage, Alice Coltrane and M. Ward. And there are songs from private and uncertain places, vulnerable places, most of all in “Vessels”. It’s as fine a song as you will hear this year, a thing of ukulele and dusky horns, Casey in a duet with her friend Laura Gibson. They lower their voices to the place between serenade and lullaby, between fall and winter, and they sing of ships: journeys taken, journeys missed, and a ship that has yet to come in.