Imagine slowly submerging into a muddy Midwestern lake. Rays of light pierce the surface, illuminating bubbles and small creatures. But it’s hard to tell what’s going on as you sink deeper, losing a sense of how far you are from the surface. Lawrence, Kansas, artist Taryn Miller, who plays under the moniker Your Friend, imposes this sense of disorientation in her debut album Gumption.
Miller signed with Domino Records, home of Animal Collective and Arctic Monkeys, in 2014 after the success of her self-recorded 2013 EP Jekyll/Hyde. Those who fell in love with the EP’s pure vocals atop clean ambient guitar and slow steady drums will be surprised to hear Gumption’s heavy use of obscure sounds that could only be cooked up in a studio. If there’s one thing the releases share, it’s Miller’s ability to layer thick melodies and haunting vocals that create a consuming, airtight atmosphere.
In promotional materials for this record, Miller describes Jekyll/Hyde as “raw and innocent.” She says she struggled with the evolution of her sound, knowing Gumption would potentially have a much greater audience. For the first time, she upgraded from recording in her own apartment to working in an industry-standard studio in Brooklyn with producer Nicolas Vernhes (The War on Drugs, Deerhunter).
As she began writing Gumption in mid-2014, Miller took a field recorder around her family farm in Dexter, Kansas. The results are flowing creek water and a repetitive engine rumble on “To Live With,” and the faint fluttering of pigeon wings in cages on “Who Will I Be in the Morning.”
The creativity of using found sounds is impressive and the studio production is excellent, but Miller’s personality (soul?) feels farther away on Gumption than it did on Jekyll/Hyde. On the EP it was easy to envision Miller playing guitar and singing directly to us, but the high-fidelity loops and drones distance her on Gumption. Only “Heathering” and “Come Back from It” feature her distinguishable guitar, and interestingly enough, those were the only two singles released early.
The third and lone wordless song “To Live With" sets the scene for the mysterious, sometimes dissonant and sometimes harmonic noises that dominate the remainder of the record. After a minute and a half of water-gurgling ambient noise and scratching feedback that hums in tempo with an eerie bass chord, “To Live With” fades away into “Desired Things.” Fans looking forward to more material on her debut album may be disappointed that Gumption only has one more lyrically driven track than her six-song EP Jekyll/Hyde.
Of recording Gumption, Miller explains, “I paid attention to textures. I was trying to remove myself from an approach that I had followed before, but to be able to bring in that melodic element that is most inherent to me, and marry it with a more sonically meditative landscape.”
With such a new approach, Gumption is not less moving than Miller’s previous work, but feels less personal. The closer, “Who Will I Be in the Morning,” might bring tears to your eyes as the bright chorus of Miller’s voice invites you to ascend from murky waters back towards the sunlight. Every artist, especially a growing one like Miller, deserves a chance to spread her wings and experiment with new sounds.
Hannah Copeland is an announcer and arts contributor at KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @hannahecopeland.