The London singer-songwriter, formerly of Goat Girl, teams with producer Joel Burton and a host of musicians on a sharply observed, sumptuously arranged album of idiosyncratic folk.
By Andy Crush
Naima Bock begins “Every Morning,” the stunning third track from her debut solo album, Giant Palm, in conversation with herself. The song’s first lines arrive in call-and-response, with a group of backing vocalists cast as the nagging doubts inside the singer’s head, voicing their interrogations in spectacularly rich harmony. Bock’s responses are comparatively understated. We gather that we’re in the aftermath of some sort of breakup, seemingly initiated by the singer herself. Her responsibility for the split doesn’t lessen her grief, an apparent contradiction that her plainspoken lines acknowledge without apologizing for. “Hello, darling,” the chorus of voices begins. “Yes, I’m mourning,” Bock answers.
Are you crying?
Is it for them?
So it is
But you left them
So be it
By the end of the exchange, Bock’s voice has begun to merge with the others. They soar upward together when they reach the line about leaving, with one soprano in the backing ensemble seeming particularly determined to burst through the clouds. Even after repeated listens, this moment comes as a minor shock, the melody’s sudden ascent suggesting a certain exultation about the departure that mingles unspoken with the sorrow of the lyrics. Later, a three-word refrain, set to a slightly flattened version of the same ascending melody, deepens the ambiguity at the song’s heart: “I lie sometimes.”
Working in collaboration with arranger Joel Burton and over 30 instrumentalists, Bock recorded Giant Palm after a period of retreat from making music in public, having departed the buzzy London post-punk band Goat Girl in favor of a quieter life off the road. She continued writing songs but had no particular plans to make an album until Burton convinced her to collaborate. It was a fortuitous union. Burton’s contributions to Giant Palm—a kaleidoscopic array of orchestral instruments and electronics—are so significant that the pair considered coming up with a new band name rather than releasing it as a Bock solo album.
Bock, who is of Brazilian and Greek heritage and spent time living in Brazil as a child, might have eventually released a remarkable album even without Burton’s intervention. Her songwriting pairs terse observations with audacious melodic turns, conveying ideas that the words on the page only hint at. She has clear power as a singer but rarely overemotes, favoring a restrained and vernacular style that evokes bossa nova singers like Astrud Gilberto and Nara Leão on one hand and UK folk revivalists like Shirley Collins and Bert Jansch on the other. (In addition to performing her own material, Bock is also a member of Broadside Hacks, a collective of young London musicians who aim to revitalize traditional English music for a new generation, much the way Collins, Jansch, and their ilk did decades before them.) It’s easy to imagine a version of Giant Palm featuring just Bock’s voice and guitar—or a more straightforward folk-rock band—that’s plenty stirring on its own.
Instead, Bock and Burton called in favors with every crack musician in their contacts lists and labored to ensure that Giant Palm sounds very little like the average singer-songwriter album. The swooning strings are reminiscent of Jim O’Rourke’s orchestral-pop masterpiece Eureka (another singer who is allergic to bombast, incidentally); the vocal harmonies and proudly fussy touches of flute and soprano sax recall the Zombies’ classic psych nugget Odeyssey and Oracle; the eerie electronic ambience of “Dim Dum” suggests Radiohead and Robert Fripp; the juxtaposition of folky modal melody and jazzy rhythm section on “Toll” bring to mind Pentangle and Astral Weeks. Despite these divergent points of historical reference, Giant Palm is a holistic and distinctly contemporary work, always rooted in the landscape of the present, never coming across as postmodern pastiche.
Bock is a deeply idiosyncratic songwriter, and Burton is thoroughly attuned to her peculiarities. As “Natural” winds down, Bock warns a prospective partner of her tendency to get sick of the people she lives with, but leaves open the possibility that she will love them anyway. Just as you settle into this happy ending, she twists it again: “There’s no point in pushing through/If we grow our separate ways.” The last word lands on a chord utterly foreign to the gliding progression that’s carried the song so far, jarring and sour and spelling doom, its dissonance heightened by the sudden appearance of tightly clustered woodwinds. On “Enter the House,” another tale of domestic discord, she pleads with someone to commit to her or let her go. The coda revisits the conceit of “Every Morning,” with lead and backup vocals representing the two sides of a dueling consciousness. “I hear a voice calling out to me/It cries ‘Come home, Nai,’” Bock sings. “You can’t go home,” the singers behind her answer, the peppiness of their melody seeming to mock her for ever thinking she could. What began as a straight-ahead country-folk tune ends as something far stranger.
Giant Palm is a breakup album of sorts, though the natures of the partnerships are not always clear. “Campervan,” at least, nods in the direction of Goat Girl: “Looking for a campervan/Looking for a different band,” goes its lurching waltz-time refrain. Bock is particularly adept at capturing a mixture of crushing sadness and bubbling excitement that can arise from striking out on your own, with neither feeling ever ruling out the possibility of the other. The path she chooses is one of quiet self-possession, mirroring the controlled burn of her singing voice. She elucidates it most vividly on the magisterial title track. “Life’s giant palm lifts me to the sky/And for a while I forget that I cannot fly/So I float high, high above it all,” she sings, a rising synth line further evoking her climb.
“Campervan” espouses a similar sentiment: “In wind and rain I’ll find my birth/And when I can I’ll go alone/In silence I will make my home.” The song, too, finds a home in silence, with a pause for breath before each chorus that lasts just long enough to seem slightly unreasonable, a deliberate and unsettling incursion on the otherwise placid atmosphere. You can practically see Bock in those moments, alone at the mic or eyeing the players assembled around her, gathering her strength and waiting for the music to propel her skyward again.
Source: Naima Bock : Giant Palm