Karima Walker straddles both Earth and space on Hands in Our Names.
The quilt is one of the most vibrant and American art forms there is. Quilts are not just blankets, they are woven histories: physical patchworks of memories stitched finger after finger, passed down hand-to-hand through generations of personal and family vulnerability. To call Arizona artist Karima Walker’s latest album a sonic quilt is to allude to it’s two most brilliant qualities. The more obvious: the album’s ability to stitch together sounds from multiple contrasting sources into a stunning picturecloth. The less-so: the album’s undeniable and unshakable roots that spread tendrils deep into American culture in order to craft a stark, yet bountiful folk artwork.
The compass needle guiding Walker’s geography starts off pointing at the metaphor of the quilt on “Holy Blanket.” This is a track, though one of the most quick and straightforward on the album, that holds close to its chest all of Walker’s main elements. “How many words must pass between us?” she queries over an opening of austere guitar, glitches of alien noise tip-toeing in and out in the background. Her voice wavers, and even disappears on the segue to the second track, only to return asunder on the album’s title track. Here, Walker’s attachment to American folklore stands the most solid. Looping her voice into a round, calling forward likeness to Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, or even old tapes of lost authors. Walker’s lyrics touch almost on the hymnal in a way so enrapturing it’s almost unnoticeable as droning feedback crescendos behind her words. Hands in Our Names is not exactly a new album as it was released to the world on cassette last year. But its destiny found it in the ears of enough blogs that Chicago’s Orindal Records decided to give it a proper release. At times, however, it feels even more ancient than that. Without context, Hands in Our Names has a tendency to present itself as sagely, as a relic of sorts that has witnessed faith, denial, and collapse on the American landscape. In an earlier interview with The Le Sigh, Walker was asked to describe her music in one word. “Terrestrial,” she answered. The connection between the subjective experience and its worldly surroundings are as inseparable in Walker’s work as are her folk song structures and sound collage tapestries. Take “We’ve Been Here Before,” a sudden, striking track that follows the album’s most folk-sounding finger plucks with a wall of emotional, shimmering noise. “We’ve been here, been here before / Tears in your eyes, eyes on the floor / A hand in mine, a hand on the door,” she almost breathes into the microphone. Walker weaves tales as much as anything, telling legends of moments in space. Just like real estate in her homeland of Arizona. It’s all about location, location, location.
Despite its terrestrial obsession, however, there are more than a few moments on Hands in Our Names that feel transcendent, as spacious and cosmic as the desert plains of America’s Southwest. “Indigo,” with its whistles and vocal delays, soars overhead even as its title roots the song in a classic botanical cornerstone of ancient cultures. The haunting countdown that begins the final track could be a countdown to launch, though its melodies do no more than glide in their quietly heartbreaking way. Walker took years composing and arranging these pieces, and it shows. While her skills in folk songwriting and juxtaposed skills in noise assemblage stand as the pillars of a great artwork all on their own, she also displays a pop sensuality that makes even her quietest tracks easy to repeat over and over. “St. Ignacio,” the album’s first label single, whispers soft similarities to an early Beach House song (except perhaps played at 75% speed). Like many artists who have woven folk and ambient electronics, Walker plays the role on this album more often of composer and collector than singer and songwriter. But the element that makes her sonic tapestries hold themselves so positively upright is her sense of presence. Walker approaches even the most extra-terrestrial music with both feet planted firmly on the Earth. Just as the most cherished family quilt, Walker’s songs create the presence of timeless heirlooms, and she herself is there as a curator and comforter, with her hands deep in her work, to fasten each one to its sense of purpose and place.
Listen to Karima Walker on bandcamp.
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Elijah Fosl is a freelance music and culture writer who's really bad at describing themselves. They hail from Louisville but live in Chicago where they work, ferociously devouring cassette tapes and local produce. Find them on Twitter at @elifosl or online at elifosl.com.