Dat Rosa Mel Apibus
he Chicago indie cognoscenti, they’ll have yr heads: Drag City, venerable home to much of Chicago’s defining post-rock, in one week releases two, count ‘em, folk records by New York-based female folk singers that wouldn’t sound out of place soundtracking a D&D workshop. Not that anyone knows it: White Magic’s debut long-player Dat Rosa Mel Apibus trots somewhere in the rather large shadow cast by Joanna Newsom’s Ys, and perhaps rightfully so. Newsom’s climb has been aided by hive-minded blogs and a perceived throne atop a nebulous folk movement, while White Magic’s trip has been a slow marinade—they last appeared on a 2005 Tylenol promotional sampler—finally punctuated by the surprisingly gritty Dat Rosa.
Driven primarily by Mira Billotte and her sturdy, cyclical piano figures, White Magic play the methodical, sturdy bluesman to Newsom’s drenched whimsy. It’s not a perfect analogy; blues suggests a structure and repetition that Dat Rosa simply does not approach. Long, spatial compositions litter Dat Rosa, but they’re constantly dragged back to the dirt by Billotte. Blessed with a concrete set of pipes that snares her warbling when it wanders, the unassuming Billotte hangs as a massive specter over Dat Rosa, an intimidating, spiritual voice. She seems in concert with her spare piano lines, which anchor all but Dat Rosa’s most unhinged and trippy moments. Even when partner Doug Shaw does manage to sneak a sawing sitar or gentle guitar strum into the mix, Billotte and her ivory help Dat Rosa maintain a warm simplicity.
Billotte cashes in on her stint as a drummer for Dischord churners Quix*o*tic—though Dat Rosa utilizes only sparse percussion, it has subtle rhythmic changes, jumping in and out of waltz time and generally avoiding any sort of missionary 4/4 plodding. The rhythmic change-ups allow Billotte and Shaw to leave these songs mostly uncluttered, showcasing Billotte’s red-clay pipes.
Given the obvious eclecticism Dat Rosa shoots for, Billotte is at her best when she’s creating strange, effected pop music. The uptown jaunt of “Hear My Call” and the barroom breeze of “Palm and Wine” contain little of the open-ended sky-scrape that constitute the majority of Dat Rosa, but they best display Billotte’s bent songwriting chops. These shorter, modest tracks allow her millstone lyricism to stick: “Who are / Who are / The Gods who would do this way / We are / We are / We are saved,” she sings in “Palm and Wine,” her piano trotting happily behind her.
Still, Dat Rosa is not an album that generates many specific memories. You’ll recall Billotte’s voice, her ivory pounding, but not her melodies. “All the World Went”’s Harrison-aping mysticism sticks, but its singular sound doesn’t provide the mid-album breather it should. “Hold Your Hands in the Dark” stews heartily for well over six minutes, but leaves no tracks. Billotte can haunt a room, but she’s not yet able to get into your head.
The atmosphere throughout the unadorned Dat Rosa—serious, autumnal—is static throughout, and Billotte will inspire little of the bile and adoration of her labelmate. But her long climb toward Dat Rosa has yielded a patient, anchored album, slyly rewarding and cautiously adrift. New folk music, same as the old folk music.