Tal Wilkenfeld's second solo album is an album that a lot of people didn't expect, and it is an album that many people will have a difficult time grappling with, myself included. I'm still not 100% sure I know what she is doing here, except that it is great, partly because when I listen to her, I feel like I am surprised and peeling back layers. Tal is a genius, and Love Remains is just something that cannot be categorized. Some listeners come here expecting jazz because of her background in jazz-rock fusion, and there is way too much folk-rock here for that. Others get the basic aesthetic of a hipster indie rock group, and the jazz weirdness will turn them away. She's outside of everything on Love Remains, and that's right where she needs to be. The only real point of comparison I can make is to Joni/Jaco, and no, she's not on Jaco's level, but... um... Jaco. Still, the folksier numbers here, emphasizing bass and Tal's weird vocal phrasing, leave that as my best comparison, even amid harder rock influenced pieces than Joni would ever do, and just as a lot of people didn't understand what Joni Mitchell was doing, Tal Wilkenfeld is perhaps a bit too out-there for some music fans. The big difference, in polarizing terms, I think is that Metheny fans were already primed for folk music, and Blue primed Joni's fans for odd musical turns. Love Remains is such a dramatic departure from both Transformation and Tal's side work that it really could throw people for a loop.
Too bad. I didn't know what to expect when I started watching some video clips of what she was doing now, in advance of the release of Love Remains, but this is so far beyond the rather rote (in my opinion) fusion of Transformation that I cannot believe anyone would prefer that she have stayed in that mode. As I listen, I think of Jeff Buckley's performances, when he would expand his set list to cover jazz standards, with guitar techniques he picked up from Gary Lucas, and play so much more than just that Leonard Cohen song with which he is popularly associated. I think of Chris Whitley's unfairly-maligned Din of Ecstasy and Terra Incognita, incorporating fuzzed out weirdness of the '90s alternative rock scene into his bluesy signature sound. Yes, there is a '90s theme here, and I'm not the first to point out the mid-'90s thing, even if I'm making different references here, but that's partly because I just don't hear Tal as a basic, post-grunge rock kid. That's not what's going on here. There is too much weirdness. In Chris Whitley's case, it came from his deep roots in the blues. In Jeff Buckley's case, it came from his fondness for old jazz, Nina Simone especially, and the influence of people like Gary Lucas. Tal? The jazz is still here, but like with Joni, you have to understand the structure to hear it.
She sings more like a jazz singer than one of those annoying, mid-90s post-grunge kids. The arrangements are more varied, and the way that her bass plays with Michael Landau and Blake Mills' guitars is nothing like what you'd hear in any remotely conventional rock group, or even in a Michael Landau project. The very idea of someone like Michael Landau playing here should, itself, tell you how unconventional this is going to be. He made his reputation as a blues-rock player, and that isn't even close to what Tal is doing. So, he's already outside HIS comfort zone.
That's the point, though. Nobody is doing anything comfortably because that's not how music gets pushed forward. Music gets pushed forward when someone decides to throw off the shackles of old conventions and mess around. That means doing things differently from how they, themselves, have done it in the past. For Tal to do it, at this stage, is brave as all get-out. But she's got the voice, unique as it is. She has the instrumental chops, and she has a vision.