Home Constellation Study

A few details to get out of the way up front. Home Constellation Study is Asher White’s 15th album, though the actual number of releases on her Bandcamp, which includes various side projects and non-album collections, is 26. The earliest of these, a ghostly collage of feedback and field recordings of Icelandic landscapes, came out when the Providence musician was 14 years old. She is now 24.

White’s prodigious early years may help to explain the accomplishment and imagination of Home Constellation Study, an album whose abundance of ideas might seem excessive if it weren’t so carefully arranged. One song sounds like Radiohead with periodic interruptions from Lightning Bolt, another like Burt Bacharach by way of Jim O’Rourke, a third like a Gamble & Huff symphonic soul epic downsized to the scale of a basement rehearsal room. A partial list of instruments that White played includes guitar, bass, drums, banjo, glockenspiel, granular synthesis, piano, and “fake mellotron”—nearly everything on the album, save for some horns and additional electronics.

White clearly loves pop and outré music from many eras. The period that Home Constellation Study most directly recalls is the one just before she started uploading her work: the mid-to-late 2000s, a time when indie rock held accessibility and experimentation in delicate balance, when a bruising noise-rock band might share a bill with a psych-folk collective that seemed sort of like a cult, when DIY scenes had just enough attention to feed bands’ ambition—but not yet so much that they crumbled under the pressure or cleaned up their acts and signed to majors. And though White wrote and recorded Home Constellation Study primarily by herself, it feels distinctly social, in an embodied, in-person, perhaps old-fashioned sort of way. So much music from young songwriters and producers now evokes the solitary overstimulation and context collapse of hours spent online. White’s feels more like hitting the road with a friend, making impromptu stops, laughing together, getting into arguments whose stakes are not hidden behind screens, then talking it out and hitting the road again.

Home Constellation Study begins in transit, with “Theme From Leaving Philadelphia,” a travelogue that a less adventurous arranger might have set to simple acoustic guitar or piano, for maximum directness and authenticity. Instead, White opts for sounds that reflect the wonder and frenzy of her departure. First, there is a fanfare of horns, voices, and maybe fake mellotron that recalls Aaron Copland’s hymns to the American spirit more than it does indie rock. Then the drums come in with a groove like a runaway train. There’s an acoustic guitar somewhere deep in the mix, strumming so hard and fast I can’t help but worry about carpal tunnel. Asa Turok’s trombone and Addy Schuetz’s sax bob and weave, sometimes offering lyrical countermelodies and sometimes terse punctuation. Cowbells clang like only cowbells can. White sings as if at a comfortable remove from the frenzy, tracing exuberant spirals of melody, unbothered by the rushing noise on the other side of the train window. The rhythms of the words neatly fit the hairpin turns of the tune; impressions of inner feeling and outer landscape begin to blur in her imagistic lyrics. One line returns persistently, nagging as it might have nagged the hungover passenger as she wrote: “I am still drunk!”

One gets the sense that White is not satisfied with a song until each of its constituent parts has been turned over and considered from all possible angles for potential adjustments that might make it somehow stranger and more familiar at once. Each time the wonky guitar hook to “Runes” repeats, it is one beat longer or shorter than the previous version, a change that doesn’t at first register on the conscious level beyond a vague sense of unsettlement. “Slow Wheel of the Year,” whose guitar-and-voice arrangement is the album’s sparest and most straightforward, has percussion breaks that sound like the lazy clicking and whirring of a bicycle’s gears as its rider coasts downhill.

These idiosyncrasies are almost always in service to the effect of a song as a whole. In the case of “Slow Wheel of the Year,” the unusual instrumentation illustrates the title and the words; in “Dream Design House,” the verse’s underlying rhythm subtly shifts to accommodate White’s vocal phrasing, using time-signature changes to make the music smoother and more natural rather than ostentatiously jagged in the manner of math rock. The printed lyrics to the gorgeous and cautiously optimistic love song “Capital Cowboy” contain a reference to Steely Dan that doesn’t actually appear in the final recording, an easter egg or version-history error that is revealing in some small but significant way: Though White’s music sounds almost nothing like the Dan on its surface, you can see how she might relate to their famous fastidiousness.

White’s preference for poetic formalism and non-narrative imagery also sets her apart from her generational peers. A line might move you not for what it reveals about Asher White as a person, or the way it makes her more relatable to you as a listener, but for the exquisite way its syllables and phonemes drape across the melody. Her interest in the musical possibilities of language can make the songs tough to parse for literal meaning, but it also makes them emotionally supple, adaptable to whatever the listener might bring. “Downstate Prairie” is apparently about city-dwellers who fetishize the idea of simple rural existence. The lines that stick with me come after most of the instruments fall away—banjo, churning drums, skronky free-jazz sax, enormous slabs of guitar distortion—leaving only White’s voice and a few bare chords: “No more borrowing the trouser and the collar and the boot/No more visiting the orchard and absconding with the fruit/Hand in hand.” You can see how they relate to the idea of urban hipsters stealing valor from country folks, but in context, for me, they sound more like a last look at love gone by, at days spent breaking rules and wearing each other’s clothes.

White writes challenging melodies for herself to sing, and pulls them off with low-key sprezzatura, never at pains to show off their difficulty. Her inflections color the words with feeling beyond whatever might be grasped on the page alone. There is a world of rich contradiction in the way she breathes the word “photograph,” in “Capital Cowboy”: on the one hand, longing for reassurance; on the other, radiating self-possession that requires no such outside validation for sustenance. Her human presence as a singer helps to hold Home Constellation Study’s divergent strains together, and to keep the album from ever coming across like an exercise in music-school intellectualism, no matter how elaborate its underpinnings. White may have had a sizeable head start on many of her peers in learning how to put a record together, but as a character in her own songs, she’s just like any other young American: high on romance and danger, restless in love and ideas, unsure of herself and the world, determined to figure it all out.