There’s something so strange and chill about the Sours’ self-titled album, out since 2013 on ZoZe Music. The Sours are musicians, artists, and music therapists from New York. They are vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Sarah Schrift — the narrative of the 11 original, musical journal entries, guitarist Sasha Markovic, and pianist Kana Kamitsubo.
Together, they exchange innermost thoughts with the listener in a kind of music therapy session. Schrift, who’s also a painter and jeweler, provides the voice throughout this confessional, as if she’s the only one in the room, alone with her observations.
Her voice is matter-of-fact, touchingly sincere, without regret, and totally relatable, as she sings plaintively about everyday matters (“you and that lady, drinking that drink”) laced with hidden meaning. The strumming of the strings or the hum of some invisible opera is constant, as if to propel the narrative forward to the inevitable, enlightened conclusion — the ultimate Nietzsche.
To reach the rich honesty of the darkest thing in the room — the poignancy of her words in spoken, poetic manner — the listener wades through a mirage of echoes, waves, voluminous subconscious shades in musical form (“Gnt”). All are a part of the therapeutic experience. The music serves as Schrift’s cloak, the many layers people put on before going to battle out there. But it also sets the tone for her emotional shorthand, in colorful brocade, ever-shifting.
Calling on the ponderous, romantic existentialism of the Decemberists, the Sours wear the various classes of music depending on their mood at any given moment. In “Seawitch,” there’s a definite jazz influence in the solo guitar, amidst the razzle-dazzle blues-limerick intros constantly trying to reset. Schrift segues between smart and sassy, then dissolves back into her usual dreamy, esoteric withdrawal. The song hints at the bitch inside, and she knows it, wryly singing about a Seawitch taking everyone who draws near down. “When you’re goin’ out to shore, don’t get carried away” shows off Schrift’s gift of gab, wrapped in a series of mysteries; saying without pointing it out.
The trio isn’t afraid of manipulating time or singing over an echo chamber. “Three Chandeliers” has Schrift acapella, setting the stage for a short story. The entire 2:15 song is her seemingly describing an empty room with three chandeliers. But she wants you to dig in. The song is about more than the pea-green bathroom and full cabinets. It’s about what she and her friends do to the place, “We’re painting like madmen, we’re fleshing them out. It was almost art…Sometimes I miss it, miss coming home to an island, where nothing’s wrong.”
“Kubrick” is the Sours’ calling card. It’s quirky and live, regretful but not ashamed, politely blasphemous, but utterly true. It’s the right blend of revelation in non-sentimental prose and roving, acoustic reverb. “I’m all alone here, I’m the only thing on the moon, I’m reaching out to the darkest thing in the moon,” Schrift sings. “There’s a lake of fire, oh god don’t let me be born again!... Why don’t I run and change the future for the better? Why don’t I change my mind and change the station? Goddamn.” Powerful.
Schrift uses her voice to communicate, au naturel, whether you’re ready or not. She’s neither consumed with the pretense of covering up the flat notes, nor polishing up her curves. Listen to “Egret,” she lays all her cards on the table — accompanied only by what sounds like the drips of a leaky faucet, or maybe inside a swollen cave in the Amazon jungle — roaring a strange, wonderful, chilling, familiar refrain of self-discovery and a kind of open-ended closure. It’s her two-minute Amy Winehouse/Mahalia Jackson moment, cracks and all.
“Wish” — a piano is heard! — plods along incoherently until the familiar notes of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” drop at more than the halfway mark — jazz!. This is no nursery rhyme, however. This is Schrift singing about separation. “I might never know what you think of me. I might never ask you, you might never see, that my heart is aching…”
The only drawback to Schrift carrying the show is the inaudibles. See “Wish” above. There are many times on this album where it’s hard to hear what she’s really saying through her accent aigus, which only invites the listener to lean in and really pay attention. Because she makes you want to.
Her strange voice isn’t much to write home about. Yet, there’s something compelling in the way she is able to change meaning, shape, and breadth simply with this strange voice in this strange, dark, but wonderful place inside her head.