Mackenzie Scott, the name behind the moniker TORRES has released the best album of 2013. I know the year just started, but I have a feeling this album will standout among the year’s best releases. The 22-year-old is from Nashville, a city well nourished in music. Like all good albums, this one has a story. She graduated from Belmont University’s songwriting program and supposedly released an EP and performed under her own name. TORRES was a departure from herself. She wanted to start a fresh, artistic venture. Last Christmas, her family chipped in money to buy the Gibson guitar that is heard on the record. An electric guitar offered her a new direction in sound, hence the change in name. The album was recorded mostly live in about five days time, in the home of a fellow singer-songwriter Tony Joe White. Scott wanted to keep the rawness of the album intact and chose to keep things messy and with the least amount of post-production possible.
The end result is a raw, emotional record whose songs flow in and out of indie rock and folk waters. I would even argue Scott swims in ambient rivers and shoegaze ponds. She even ponders in a hazy dream pop forest found in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest where 90s alt-rock was born. The references to nature are intentional; Scott’s album is rich with references to nature. She blames seasons for holding lovers hostage; she contemplates suicide with a waterfall. She even personifies leaves on trees, as if she were a Romantic poet.
She manages to blend all of these different genres and sounds over the course of ten songs without much production. Like I mentioned earlier, this record was recorded in mostly live sessions and that rawness is conveyed on every song. There’s always a spine to see, bones to reveal. TORRES is a fearless effort. As vulnerable and desperate as Scott might sometimes seem, it takes a strong person to release such a personal album like this.
This is the paragraph where I compare Mackenzie Scott to other artists. I always wonder why writers are so inclined to compare artists. We can’t seem to resist the urge. Why can’t an artist just stand on their own? As listeners we hear kindred spirits in voice, familiar chord progressions and similar melodies. Perhaps, it’s just an instinctual human trait to associate and make connections. We’re always borrowing what we know, to mediate something new. Anyway, now that I answered my own question and solved that conundrum let’s make some associations.
The first artist that came to mind when I first listened to TORRES was Sharon Van Etten. There are a lot of obvious similarities: female, guitar-driven, gut-wrenching themes and lyrics. Both are purely indie rock. What stands out most is the intensity of emotion in their voices. These two women have survived a lot of bad times. Van Etten has confessed that she has struggled with a few emotional problems; depression and anxiety to be exact. In her song “We Are Fine,” which Zach Condon of Beirut shares vocal duty, she sings through a panic attack, with the help of Condon. Scott has not been upfront about dealing with the same personal struggles, but she doesn’t have to, they are conveyed in her songs. I can’t help but think about Sharon Van Etten, a singer-songwriter from New Jersey and TORRES from Tennessee, could have lived around the corner from each other, or have been penpals and conquered these demons together. The personal demons that exist within them and the external ones that seem to crush on their souls and hearts. On Scott’s opening track “Mother Earth, Father God,” she sings about these demons “wager[ing] on [her] fall.”
But the reason I first thought of Van Etten when listening to TORRES was because her album “Tramp” came out in 2011 and I still feel dizzy and bruised by it. I mean that in the best way possible. Good albums should shake you to your core. Tramp did that and more. It made my Top 20 list of best records of that year. But Mackenzie Scott can be compared to other artists as well. She’s akin to early Chan Marshall of Cat Power in her vulnerability and rawness. At times she hits PJ Harvey levels of stark passion. In some ways her vocals are reminiscent of Shara Worden who records under the name My Brightest Diamond. While researching TORRES, I stumbled upon Pretty Much Amazing‘s review of TORRES where Drew Malmuth compares her sound to Julie Doiron.
Everything clicks. Julie Doiron, a French-Canadian singer-songwriter who has been releasing heart-wrenching albums for the last twenty years is TORRES’ soul sister. Phil Elverum (of Mount Eerie, The Microphones) has said that Julie Doiron’s voice is one of the saddest he’s ever heard. He then proceeded to record an album with her and it was one the most devastating and beautiful collaborations I have ever heard. I wonder what Elverum would think of TORRES. I’m sure he would invite her to Anacortes, Washington too. I imagine them recording an album in the woods nestled between two mountains.
Got Her Hands Lifted to Heaven and Her Toes Dipped in Hell
TORRES begins her record kicking and punching. “Mother Earth, Father God,” opens with muted chords and cello. Every guitar strum is accented by orchestration; a melancholic cello that appears throughout the album. The song is striking, but it isn’t until her voice comes in and soothes all those sharp edges. But her voice is a double-edged sword. Soothing, yet her first lyric is just as keen as the music, “I was born on bloody battlegrounds,” she confesses. As the song continues, she sings, “Was I blindsided after all? I knew beforehand of the kiss. You always warned me of the kiss. I have been betrayed by a kiss.” Scott has stepped out on the battleground of love. Yes, I’m about to reference Pat Benetar’s 80s hit. Love is a risk, a place where we drop our guards and weapons. We are vulnerable, naked and open to so many things, including pain. “You warned me of the kiss,” Scott sings. We always seem to ignore the cautions and counsel of others and kiss anyway. We kiss and kiss and kiss until it’s too late. “Was I blindsided after all?” she asks. Yes, you were, we always are.
While You Were Ashing in Your Coffee
“Honey” is the first single off of the album. It earned a “Best New Track” nod from Pitchfork. The song starts as a whisper and builds and builds with each verse and chorus. “Honey, while you were ashing in your coffee, I was thinking ’bout telling you what you’ve done to me,” she sings. She’s working up the courage to confront a lover who is blind to the harm they have caused. The line is so vivid, I can imagine the sound of the ash sizzle as it hits the lukewarm coffee in a paper cup.
“Honey” is a song that desires change; it’s a declaration to a lover. As the song progresses, Scott’s voice continues to grow stronger and angrier, reminiscent of PJ Harvey. The song reminds me of Best Coast’s song named “Honey.” It is dark, distorted, filled with real anguish. “Honey” is the lo-fi route I wished Best Coast had chosen. Scott’s “Honey” is yearning for some safe ground on that battlefield she was born on. Halfway through the song she asks, “What ghost crawled inside my guitar?” She mistakes her sudden courage for a ghost and the anthemic song she was building in tone and energy ends somewhere in forfeit. The antagonist wins. But what would an album be if the artist conquered their demons in the second song?
I Think I Have Always Cared Too Much
On “Jealousy and I,” the third track off the album Scott is wrestling with the mistakes of young love. Jealousy. The album slows down here to feature Scott’s vocals. “Would you really have a stranger in your bed, rather than let someone like me take care of you?” she sings. Her vocals shine here, proving she is a true singer. The whispered, twisting and swirling “looooooooove” in the chorus is truly affecting. The guitar picking evokes a bit of shoegaze, something you would hear in a Gregg Araki film. Her voice heard over the atmospheric guitar picking is a bit haunting despite the very common emotion we all have experienced. “I’m suffocating you I know. It’s just the only way I know how to love,” she confesses. Finding the right balance between devotion and obsession is a complicated matter. It’s different with every significant other. Scott is wrestling with the pangs of jealousy in the same way that Daughter, another up-and-coming singer-songwriter from the UK does. Daughter, originally the solo work of Elena Tonra (who is now a trio) tackles the same emotion in her first single “Smother” off her debut album due out in March. These two songs are unintentional companions. They are from two different artists I’m excited for this year.
That Night I Banged at Winter’s Doorstep
“November Baby” is a seven-minute ode to an unknown love. This is where the album comes to a standstill (and I mean that in a good way). It’s the moment you stop in a museum to stare off into an old painting. Or when you watch others stare off into some mural. It’s those moments you catch yourself staring out some window–either at home from your bedroom, or on a train. In those reflective moments where you imagine a possible future for yourself, or the futures of others. Lyrics are all we have in this song. With the exception of the Ed Gein-ian lyric, “This skin hangs on me like a lampshade,” it’s easy to fall into deep contemplation here.
“But summer takes you far from me. So just for now, I’ll place an angel atop an early Christmas tree. Your big sad eyes. Your crooked smile. Your gapped teeth. Your widow’s peak. Oh, my November baby….”
Even the Leaves Grow Weary of the Trees From Which They Came
Here, Scott remembers how to strum a guitar and picks up the pace of the record. She leaves that solemn yet beautiful place she found herself in during the last two songs. On this track she anticipates a season where her love can flourish. I imagine “When Winter’s Over” as a single. The song starts off with a guitar riff, reminiscent of an old Rilo Kiley song. The song starts slow, but you can hear the guitar yearning for some frantic strumming. The song sounds full. There is more than one guitar and a full drum set. “You always made my head spin, more than the whiskey on our lips,” she confesses. Once the chorus kicks in, the song reaches a roar and Scott is belting out the words from deep in her chest. In those few moments, a thrill soars through you. There’s a hint of emo, and some punk roots. This is the anthem “Honey” was reaching for. She sounds like a “seasoned” lover, shouting from a snowy mountaintop.
Fool Me Once and I Won’t Make a Sound. Fool Me Twice, There’s Shame to Go Around
Dark. Dark. Dark. Scott commands your attention from the beginning of “Chains.” A bass guitar or cello is being plucked from the depths of a wronged lover. Her voice is guttural and chilling. The song doesn’t warm up until her voice raises a few octaves. But that goth/industrial bassline still lingers as she sings, “So feed me something real while I’ve got youth left in my veins.” “Chains,” sounds like the darker side of Shara Worden’s My Brightest Diamond. Those brooding and incisive songs off her debut Bring Me the Workhorse.” “Don’t give up on me just yet,” she pleas. No worries, we’re all here hanging on your every word.
Please Don’t Look at This Like a Hit and Run…
“Moon & Back” is a song I can’t touch. If I’m doing the math right, in 1991 Scott was only 2-years-old so she couldn’t have had the baby she sings about giving up for adoption. The sweeping cello and quick violins in this song make the song that much more depressing. Her voice is sweet, the melody lulling you within its grasp. “Life just thought I should draw the shortest straw,” she sings. The song culminates in this rush of emotion, where all the instruments meet abruptly. I can’t help but think of Ben Folds Five’s “Brick.”
I Don’t Feel the Need Today For My Usual Masquerade
On “Don’t Run Away, Emilie,” Scott gets a glimpse of something honest and real. A glimpse of “home” in someone else’s eyes. She claims she “rather have what’s real.” She pulls the mask from off her face. She drops her guard a minute too late. “I need you because you see me,” she pleads. The concentration on vocals in this song are reminiscent of Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink of Azure Ray. The orchestration is in full force here. The title of the song reminds me of Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago.” She feels comfortable enough to reveal her true self, but fears “Emilie” won’t stay long.
Cause People Always Change But Ain’t Always Changing For the Better
Scott gives up her electric guitar for an acoustic one on “Come to Terms.” It’s the only track on the album that you hear her fingers sliding up and down the neck of a guitar. There’s something intimate about that sound. In this song, it seems as if she has worked up the courage she was seeking in the beginning of the record. She realizes that perhaps this love of hers, is not supposed to be everlasting. “And just because the two of us will both grow old in time, don’t mean we should grow old together,” she sings. If that isn’t a realization, I don’t know what is.
Nowhere to Go But Down. Nothing to Do But Drown
“Waterfall” is the last song on the record. It reads like a suicide note and sounds like an ambient, dream pop poem. “Oh Waterfall, [...] Do you ever make it halfway down and think, God, I never meant to jump at all?” she sings over a constant ambient whisper. Azure Ray could have written this song. “The rocks below, they bare their teeth. They all conspire to set me free,” she continues singing while standing at the top of this waterfall. Will she jump? “Nowhere to go but down, Nothing to do but drown,” she sings. It’s as if she doesn’t have a choice anymore. If this album was Scott revealing her “truest” self and letting go of the masquerade she was living, perhaps this “suicide” is necessary.
It’s too late to change her mind. Her debut album is out and in the hands of the world. She already jumped. This intimate and raw collection of songs is a beautiful narrative of love. TORRES reveals itself, song-by-song, layer-by-layer. Scott exposes herself in ways few artists do these days. TORRES is an album that suffers from poetic honesty. It speaks of the nature around us, and the nature within us. There’s a song for every lovelorn listener out there. Just choose a season and her weathered voice will soundtrack your thoughts.
2/22 at Cake Shop in New York, NY
2/24 at The Paper Box in Brooklyn, NY
2/25 at DC9 in Washington, DC