On the title track of her third album as L’Rain, Taja Cheek chants, “I killed your dog.” The repetition of the four words sounds dissociative at first; as Cheek croons through a scrim of vocal processing, a tinge of regret seems to enter her voice. But her unsettling lyrics and eerily overdubbed vocals hint at a stranger picture. “I felt the blood drip from my teeth,” Cheek’s narrator says. “I felt the waves hitting my face.” Eventually, Cheek twists the proverbial knife: “It made me happy,” the killer confesses, the disclosure followed by sinister laughs that float through an abyss of languid synths and sax. And she’s not done yet. In the closing seconds, Cheek gets surreal, singing “I am your dog.”
This is the theatrical, elliptical, and bewitching mood of I Killed Your Dog, which revamps L’Rain’s typically introspective music into baroque dreamscapes. After exploring the peculiar weight of grief and the weary labor of self-improvement on her first two albums, the singer and multi-instrumentalist turns her attention to another kind of interiority: passion. The intense emotion adds flair and drama to her layered songs, centering the playfulness once pushed to the margins of her music. Only one fictional pet gets snuffed, but the whole album is bolder and brasher than previous L’Rain records, every harmony, loop, and skit engorged with verve. Cheek has figured out how to maintain her slippery, impressionistic style while also letting it be known she’s got that dog in her.
Cheek and her cadre of session musicians establish the album’s beguiling mode early. “Our Funeral” head-fakes as a torch song, floating Cheek’s rich lower register over plaintive keys and flickering synths. But Cheek’s lament to a doomed relationship is curiously eager. “End of days/Are you ready?” she repeats as if calling forth a vengeful god, a cauldron of snaps, melodies, and drums burbling beneath her. This breakup doesn’t just feel like the end of the world; it beckons it. Single “Pet Rock” is outwardly flip, offering wry metacommentary on the erasure of Black people in rock over nimble, Strokes-style guitar melodies. “You know/I’m invisible/Cut the bullshit/And make me into/Something else,” Cheek sings. The fact that she’s the guitarist heightens the irony.
Humor, explicit and subtle, functions as the album’s Rosetta Stone. In the brief skit “What’s That Song?,” someone asks for help figuring a jazz song. “I know it sounds like all of them,” they say after crudely mimicking the melody. Seconds later, a full band blips in to actually play the song, their rich tones snapping the imitation to life and underscoring the condescension of the question. The bit, reminiscent of Adult Swim commercial bumps, is extremely funny—especially if you’ve ever been the goof mangling a half-remembered tune. Cheek has said she set out to make the “exact opposite” of experimental music that is heady and untouchable, and the immediacy of comedy suits that mission.
The record isn’t all arch jokes and inanimate pets. Cheek is foremost a collagist who can wrest surprising textures and overtones from sounds found and played, and these songs boast her most pleasing arrangements. The oddly timed claps and staggered vocal loops of “Sometimes” evoke the unpolished warmth of church hymns. “5 to 8 Hours (WWwaG),” a highlight, whips an already lively folk tune into a whirl of hums, ticking percussion, and guitar and trumpet melodies that ripples over a lengthy spoken-word verse. The words are barely legible over the maelstrom, but Cheek’s confidence seeps through. “I want to try to fill myself with the things I’ve lost, the things I wanted, the things I love,” she says, yearning for satiation.
That appetite for fullness underlies the record’s restless motion. The prominent seams of instrumentation that course through these songs accent Cheek’s uppercase emotions, which span from resentment (“I Hate My Best Friends”) to loneliness (“New Year’s UnResolution”) to wonder (“Oh Wow, a Bird!”). The arrangements and mixing foreground the abundance of sounds being produced and manipulated, the emphasis underscoring both Cheek’s many collaborators and her multiplicity. Where past L’Rain music channeled the woozy fog of memory and the daunting haziness of the future, these songs take place in the chaos of real time.
“Uncertainty Principle,” which deftly shifts from noise rock to angelic R&B, distills the record’s ethos and Cheek’s M.O. “You’re convinced that in the dark there will be nothing/But for me, a little nothing’s got some something,” she sings. She’s a tinkerer enchanted by the musical potential of every little experience and sound, a passion manifest in I Killed Your Dog. It is an odd koan of a record: stuffed to the gills with rhythms and images and feelings, yet loose and dreamlike; replete with despair and loneliness, yet hopeful and communal. Cheek presents herself and experimental music as prisms through which anything—Brandy-like harmonies, silly commercials, and homicidal urges—can flow. Darkness, in her skillful and curious hands, is possibility.
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