Sour Cherry Bell (Kranky) is the second full-length release from New Orleans-based artist Melissa Guion, who releases music under the moniker MJ Guider. It primarily deals in atmosphere. Guion uses heavily processed electronic textures, often drenched in thick treacle-like reverb, to create moody and evocative soundscapes. There are synthetic drum sounds, but this is certainly not dance music. The emotion-laden washy chord sequences recall the 1980s “Gothic” music and perhaps the “shoegaze” that followed in its footsteps, but this is music that doesn’t fit neatly into any category. Many of the sound-worlds have a lush warmth which lends them a meditative quality, but there is also an unsettling element of tension, as though dissonance and harmony are in competition with each other. Guion’s voice is tender and graceful and with it, she weaves flowing melodies. But the voice is often intentionally distant – buried in the mix and concealed by long reverb tails. It feels as though Guion has intentionally engineered a situation where opposing elements battle it out for dominance. These songs could have been presented in a radio-friendly indie package, but instead, the melodies and words only just lift their heads above the walls of noise that encase them. It takes audacity and boldness to attempt this sort of approach which flouts so many of the accepted rules of composition and music production. It seems that Guion was pushing the boundaries of her creativity and her tools: “I was curious to see how far I could go with them, even if that meant reaching the ends of their capacity to do what I wanted.”
Sour Cherry Bell’s strategy as outlined above could have resulted in disaster. Happily, it succeeds. That’s not to say that this album is an easy listen. It requires the listener to immerse themselves in the sound-worlds here. The payoff for devoting one’s full attention to this record is that the myriad layers of the songs are gradually and gloriously revealed. Part-hidden underneath the sometimes cacophonous and chaotic noise-sculptures are melancholic and fragile songs that pull on the heartstrings. The delivery of these very human songs, just out of reach behind the bleak and dense fog of experimental electronica, means that we have an album here which genuinely doesn’t sound quite like anything else.
The record is probably best listened to as a whole, but there are nonetheless several standout moments. Opener “Lowlight” expertly combines menacing synth tones with a slinkily memorable vocal hook. “FM Secure” features glorious weird vocal harmonies buried under the weight of industrial beats and otherworldly pads. “Simulus”, with its robotic beats and tribal drones, hits the perfect balance between utter despair and joyful euphoria. “Sourbell” is full of deliciously catchy pop melodies that clash dramatically with the cathartically miserable orchestration.
With Sour Cherry Bell MJ Guider embraces contradiction and counterpoint. She eschews commerciality but creates wonderful pop melodies; she allows the humanity of her voice and songs to be all but drowned in harsh electronic production. The results will not appeal to everyone, and the nuances of this album will take some time – and repeat listens – to appreciate. That said, listeners who are well-versed in heavy and noisy styles but who also appreciate the beauty of tender and melancholic songwriting will reap rewards if they give some time and attention to Sour Cherry Bell.
Sour Cherry Bell is released on 18th September 2020 on Kranky. Buy it here:
7 / 10