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Johanna Warren - Chaotic Good Music Album Reviews

The Oregon-based singer-songwriter's taut new album channels the wounded spirit of Elliott Smith. 

Aquiet rage simmers beneath Johanna Warren’s first four albums. You can hear it in the way she fries her voice on “A Bird in the Crocodile's Mouth,” or the distant, uneven percussion of "Here to Tell," which sounds like angry footsteps growing closer. It’s there under the abundant beauty of her mostly acoustic earlier work, which inspires calm and dread in equal measure. On her latest full-length, Chaotic Good, Warren lets that rage erupt to the forefront.
If the Oregon-based singer-songwriter’s music can be slotted neatly beside the lunar environments of Julianna Barwick and Grouper, women who take distance as a primary emotive strategy, she also finds a deep kinship with the work of Elliott Smith, the late folk-rock songwriter who sublimated anger into taut and compelling pop. Smith knew when to subdue his compositions and when to ignite them, when to whisper through gritted teeth and when to open into a full-hearted yelp. Warren’s study of these gestures shows more clearly than ever on Chaotic Good, which evinces Smith’s influence on the brisk, rolling guitar chords of “Part of It” and on the close-whispered vocals of “Every Death.” Alongside Smith’s echo, bolder, brasher notes of Hole and Liz Phair also peek through—’90s contemporaries of Smith who indulged their anger playfully, in ways that tore up the scripts for women artists at the time.
Warren often multitracks her voice to create a chorus of one, adding depth and dimension to her striking soprano. On Chaotic Good, the first of her albums she’s produced on her own, there’s a moment where she pitches that common technique into overdrive. It comes on a song called "Twisted," a heavy exorcism of a troubled relationship. Against a throbbing guitar progression and a simple rock drum beat, Warren's voice ascends to a breaking point. “I give up/I give up/I gave it my all,” she howls at the song's climax, her voice splitting the last syllable open into a paralyzing shriek.

Chaotic Good is an album about recognizing and deprogramming your codependent tendencies, the habit of needing a partner to feel whole. The ‘90s touchstones Warren calls upon often explored similar themes, excavating the ruins of relationships and trying to reassemble the self in their midst. “I wanted you to stay/And I wanted you to leave/Each day it’s a little harder to believe,” Warren sings on the gorgeous, sloping "Bed of Nails,” a song where her transformation from shadowy folk songwriter to rock bandleader comes into clearest view. The space around her opens up, and more instruments join the fold, bolstering her sound with adrenaline and grit.

The change fits the subject. As much as leaving a soured relationship can feel lonely, like the entire world has been compressed into the space of your own skull, the aftermath is often a communal rite. You call out to others to bear witness to what you’re leaving behind, to reestablish yourself in the social fabric. You quit codependence for interdependence, and then, eventually, independence, having learned to stand on your own two feet in a crowd. It’s a painful process, often an angry one. And then the fire finishes burning, and the nearby ground is clean.

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