The somewhat Art Deco-styled cover illustration on Julia Kent's Character is a dramatic contrast to the photo-based images gracing her previous albums, 2007's Delay and 2011's Green and Grey. But while that difference in visual design might suggest a corresponding change in sonic approach, Character doesn't so much signal a change in stylistic direction for the Canadian-born and New York City-based cellist so much as it represents a further refinement of her artistry. The ten settings composing her debut for The Leaf Label prove to be as captivating as those that came before, and Kent, who also has established herself through associations with Parellel41, Antony and the Johnsons, and others, shows herself once again to be a solo artist of exceptional caliber.
And a solo project it most assuredly is, as Kent recorded Character alone in her home studio, methodically crafting each of the album's mini-narratives into compelling form. Obviously choosing her titles with care, she is sensitive to the associations that develop between a title such as “Only Child” and the loneliness conjured by its emotional instrumental terrain. Dashes of dulcimer-like sounds and percussive taps added to the cello's flowing lines imbue the similarly evocative “Flicker” with an aura of intrigue that suggests the mystery of an espionage thriller set in some exotic foreign land, while rapidly plucked patterns form a spidery backbone for multi-layered bowing in “Transportation,” whose lulling waltz figures generate a dream-like effect that's powerfully seductive.
Utilizing the full array of cello-related techniques, Kent creates immersive sound worlds that impress as fully formed in spite of their extreme concision (none of the ten pieces exceeds five minutes). She exploits layering to the fullest degree possible, with a given track sounding as if it's being performed by a tenet of cellists as opposed to one (albeit one well-armed with looping and layering technologies). The album's cello-based sound world extends subtly into other realms via Kent's inclusion of found and processed sounds (apparently struck matches, an ancient autoharp, and wine glasses filter their way into the album), as well as field recordings, which are threaded subliminally into the material. The bright percussive patterns (originating presumably from the wine glasses) in “Salute,” for example, provide a bold timbral counterpoint to the luscious string textures, and ranges of mood and tempo are plentiful, from the funereal mournfulness of “Fall” to the stern majesty of “Kingdom,” a portentous set-piece that darkens to a point of nightmarishness. As a final reminder of Kent's talents as both performer and composer, the closing elegy, “Nina and Oscar,” makes for a beautiful exit to an altogether remarkable collection.