If there was a prize for the most delayed yet overwhelmingly positive response to a record in 2021, a sure front-runner in the category would have been Fatigue, the second album from New York innovator L’Rain.
While the album ultimately ended up being a triumph for the Taja Cheek-led project, Fatigue only received a small amount of gushing praise at the time of its release at the midway point of the year. Over the coming months, news of its splendour began to register with many listeners, before it deservedly landed itself a podium finish on the end-of-year lists of some of music’s most high-profile outlets.
Singular in its sound, the record represented a seismic shift in Cheek’s career trajectory, expanding on the dreamy sound of her self-titled debut to create a cosmic art-pop album that showcased her talent as a writer, producer and arranger in a grand sense.
Refusing to rest on her laurels, her third album, I Killed Your Dog, sees L’Rain expand on the highs of her previous records and takes her transcendental compositions to even greater levels. With a wider audience now established thanks to Fatigue’s acclaim, this was always going to be Cheek’s opportunity to go all-out and create a truly stunning piece of work to cement her place among the most adored avant-garde artists working today, and you better believe she’s gone and done that.
The first thing to note about I Killed Your Dog is how there is absolutely no clutter. Finally breaking the half-hour barrier that her previous albums narrowly fell short of, the extra few minutes of music we’re treated to doesn’t act as padding, but gives the listener more time to sink into the sonic bliss that permeates through the album.
While it’s possible for album-agnostic listeners to pick and choose favourite tracks to return to, this is a record that reveals its intricacies best when digested as a whole, with several interludes that serve as the glue that binds the various genre diversions that might otherwise feel abrupt.
This fluidity is something that has always added to L’Rain’s previous records’ sense of coherence as deliberately designed albums with a concept behind them, but the ties feel even more defined this time even in spite of the tonal disparity.
It’s hard to imagine a version of the album where title track ‘I Killed Your Dog’ and its raucous climax moves directly into the folk-adjacent ‘5 to 8 Hours a Day (WWwaG)’ without being separated by the brief sound collage of ‘All The Days You Remember’, and the other short links of overlaid samples and prose that are scattered through the album only help the listener navigate the winding path I Killed Your Dog takes them on.
The themes the album explores navigate new territory for L’Rain as well, looking through the introspective lens of being an ‘anti-break-up record’ while tackling emotions of grief on tracks like ‘Our Funeral’ and reflecting on her younger years on ‘Knead Bee’. While this accounts for some of the more tender moments on display, something else that the record triumphs at doing is releasing tension in the most unexpected but cathartic ways.
‘r(EMOTE)’ lulls the listener into thinking that the track might be a dreamy and soulful track with the way Cheek’s layered vocals build at the start of the track, but it eventually culminates in rattling snares and post-rock guitars underneath a constantly pulsating bass.
This is then followed by ‘Uncertainty Principle’ which begins with many of the same features, but early on shows signs that the jazz-fusion style could erupt at any moment, and does so by working its way towards a noise-tinged climax.
Having toured with the likes of black midi and Animal Collective, one could perhaps try and bridge a gap between these artists with what L’Rain is creating, as well as some of the sprawling jazz-rock moments of Esperanza Spalding or the neo-soul vignettes that Liv.e has explored on her albums. Despite showing some overt similarities, it would be a futile effort to try and make comparisons to too many of her contemporaries, as her modus operandi is to set one expectation and swiftly shatter it with another majestic left-turn.
L’Rain isn’t so much defying conventions, but is redefining them in new contexts, blending a broad range of influences and prior musical experience to create something that stands virtually alone in its field. Those less well-travelled in the melding of genres might have a hard time navigating the record, but anyone willing to challenge themselves is in for a big reward
Granted, it’s not too much of a step away from what L’Rain has accomplished with her work previously, but it’s a giant step beyond it in terms of its ambition. Consider it the wayward sibling to her other albums; it still shares some of its DNA and personal identity, but is far more rebellious and comes with an unabashed desire to fuck things up.
Photo credit: Alice Plati