Julien Baker pulls no punches on Sprained Ankle

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Julien Baker | photo by Jake Cunningham | courtesy of the artist
Julien Baker | photo by Jake Cunningham | courtesy of the artist

The Sprained Ankle in the title of Julien Baker’s debut record happens to be purely metaphorical.  But that’s a rare and merciful exception among the litany of pain, both physical and psychological, that the Memphis-based songwriter catalogues across the album’s 34 minutes: from wrapping a car around a streetlamp to the jitters of withdrawal, to the wrenching agony of heartbreak, to the empty, gnawing tedium of days spent in a hospital bed.  It’s harrowing stuff; an impressionistic but unflinching annal of addiction, self-loathing and spiritual crisis – and perhaps all the more striking given Baker’s young age: she’s twenty now but was closer to eighteen when she wrote these songs.

The stark intimacy of the recordings (conducted at Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb studios) and the sometime emo/punk frontwoman Baker’s raw, formidable vocal delivery – by turns hushed, gritty, reverent and impassioned – make no attempt to soften the songs’ emotional brutalism.  But Sprained Ankle is a surprisingly warm, inviting listen regardless: a set of unadorned but graceful melodies and simple, minimal acoustic guitar and piano arrangements which occasionally build – through effect-laden multi-tracking and deep stacks of reverb – toward chiming, hymnlike ambient passages, providing something of a counterpoint to – and respite from – the unfettered bloodletting and catharsis.

Julien Baker headlines Boot and Saddle on Wednesday, January 20th; get tickets and more information on the show at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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