The Chicago singer-songwriter Jess Shoman hits a radiant sweet spot on her idiosyncratic, scratchy and bareboned debut album.
Jess Shoman’s bedroom folk project as Tenci possesses both a scratchy, junkyard charm and a sepulchral elegance that constructs a hermetic musical universe all of its own. If you like your moonshine folk minimal, hushed and blessed with a voice of earthy, off-kilter beauty, you will find much pleasure within her languid strums and plucked strings; her most convincing material here heaves with approachability, directness and simplicity and feels more like dialogues than riddles to be teased out.
Cooked up in just over a month at the home of musician and producer Spencer Radcliffe, with a small ensemble of Chicago-based musicians, My Heart Is an Open Field is a lo-fi delight exploring loss, rebirth and self-doubt. The compositions are patient, bareboned and framed as journal entries or conversations, with notes lingering in the air like sighs and brushed cymbals providing a pulse.
The melancholy Earthquake sets the tone of sparse shimmer with its hissy, high-noon guitar soundscape that blossoms into a gospel-inflected, Everybody Hurts-like shuffle. It’s a captivating vehicle for the singer-songwriter’s endearingly shaky, reedy, country-tinged vibrato, which asks, “Can you stay?”
Hair Sticks apes the tender, unhurried grace of third album Velvet Underground with its steady guitar line; Shoman’s cracked and trembling voice winds through the space in between, as delicate as an antique plate gathering dust on a cabinet shelf. Droplets of saxophone and the mantra-like clippety clop of horse hooves coalesce as she strings together choice images: “You’re a dog in the window/I’m a loose piece of twine”.
The dizzy Serpent employs the metaphor of a snake to represent the vicissitudes of life and the re-shaping of one’s identity after the demise of a relationship. As the track gathers steam with its noisy cantering, the singer’s tremulous vocals build into a full-throated cry of anguish.
Surges of pedal steel guitar decorate the Will Oldham-flecked waltz of Forgot My Horse’s Name whilst Blue Spring is draped in a swell of cello and concludes with a heart-breaking voicemail by her grandmother, Hortencia, who provided the inspiration for Shoman’s alias.
On My Heart Is An Open Field, Tenci navigates with poise and texture the transient epiphanies and setbacks that make up a life whilst holding out for optimism and tenderness. It lands a powerful emotional punch from a small sonic palette that eludes pigeon-holing and transcends its limitations whilst tugging at the heartstrings: its hazy watercolours often obscure darker sketches.