“Safe and perfect bores me to death,” Aby Wolf bemoans on the opening track of Wolf Lords, and it’s the closest thing to a mission statement the prolific singer and songwriter has offered us to date. Now on her third album, Aby has established herself as a chameleonic, restless artist who is constantly looking for new ways to showcase her vast vocal abilities, and it’s that sense of searching that has led her to develop such unique, forward-thinking music.
Wolf Lords is a collaboration with Grant Cutler, and the first time Aby has worked so closely with a producer to develop an aesthetic for an album. In fact, referring to Cutler as the producer of the album doesn’t quite do his role justice; the two birthed the album out of a series of improvisational performances and home-studio meanderings, and in the project’s early stages they even billed themselves as WolfLords rather than a solo effort by Aby.
Aby has made a name for herself performing with well-established artists, namely Dessa, but the songs on Wolf Lords are actually the product of a far more improvisational, under-the-radar scene here in the Twin Cities. We have a lot of venues in town that are great for seeing straight-ahead shows, but there are also a handful of venues that are willing to take chances on less-developed acts and let them incubate in front of a live audience—Icehouse, the Red Stag, and the Dakota Late Night series are a few that come to mind. Over the past few years, these spaces have become breeding grounds for some of the most innovative electro music in town, and for whatever reason this ability to perform half-baked songs in front of a sometimes distracted, sometimes present audience has helped birth projects like this new one from Aby Wolf.
The first few times I saw Wolf and Grant Cutler perform together as WolfLords felt downright tedious at times, but that was also part of the appeal; they didn’t quite know where they were headed and instilled little confidence in their listeners, but after a period of seemingly aimless wandering they would suddenly arrive at a beautiful, buoyant moment. Which is the appeal of seeing any improvisational act, I suppose, but what Wolf and Cutler have done is distill those moments of beauty down into composed pop songs that wouldn’t sound nearly as inventive if they hadn’t taken the long way to get there.
And now we have Wolf Lords, and what a coup it is. The album has suddenly bubbled up as a fully formed idea, each song steering the listener down a different, colorful path. Songs like “Permission” and “Stay Right There” pulsate with subliminal beats that never quite break through the surface, while “Align” cranks up the Auto-Tune (yes, Auto-Tune, but only for a few moments) and live drum beats for a dance-pop banger, and “Appropriate Violence” dials up the delay pedal to create an Imogen Heap-like, layered effect.
There is another appeal to Wolf Lords that is less definable. Anyone who has watched Wolf perform knows she sings from a very deep, introspective place; the way she shapes the air with her hands and squints her eyes shut seems to indicate that she isn’t controlling her voice so many as guiding it as it makes its entrance into this world from some other plane. For the first time, Wolf Lords manages to capture those otherworldly, soul-stirring moments on tape. The final moments of “Stay Right There” are the best example of this; Aby has a range that rivals divas like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, but she’s less showy about it, content to somersault around her high range amid a wash of synthesized sound rather than bring her voice center stage and make a big deal of it.
For all of Wolf’s strengths, her lyricism is probably the weakest of her abilities, and though I’ve been a fan of all three of her albums—from the indie-folk on Sweet Prudence to the ’90s dance-inspired A. Wolf & Her Claws to this current release—I’ve often found her lyrics heavy-handed and overly literal. There are a few clunky lines on Wolf Lords as well, but for some reason they don’t distract me as much this time around; Cutler has a knack for employing vocal effects and pedals in such measured, circular ways that the mind wanders in and out of what Wolf is saying and instead focuses more on how she is saying it. His work helps to lend a bit of added depth to lines that might sound like throwaways in other songs, keeping the attention squarely where it belongs—on Wolf’s mesmerizing, emotive, and unrivaled voice.
Aby Wolf performs a CD-release show for Wolf Lords this Saturday, February 23, at the 7th St. Entry with Lizzo & Young Baby and Demographics.