As SPELLLING, Chrystia Cabral dances the line between straightforward dream pop and aquatic, experimental electronic folk, creating music that both roils the soul and inspires whimsical daydreams. She expanded upon her tactile sound on 2021’s audacious The Turning Wheel, using rich instrumentation to animate her folkloric stories. Working with her touring band on new album SPELLLING & the Mystery School, Cabral reshapes previous album cuts with fresh arrangements, giving them the rhythmic, freeform feel of live versions. Her voice has never sounded better, even as some of the album makes you want to turn back to the delights of her charmingly shambling earlier work.
Most of the reworks clear away the originals’ hazy production and make drastic vocal changes. Whereas before Cabral could sound like she was singing from another room, here her voice is clear and concise, with vocals mic’d up close. Her more expressive, colorful tone on the new “Walk Up to Your House” adds a heightened sense of drama to the song’s hallucinatory lyrics. She also trades the song’s lurching synths for a trembling string section from the Del Sol Quartet, a San Francisco-based chamber group that embellishes Mystery School’s songs with subdued flourishes. They’re especially resonant on the update of Turning Wheel’s “Boys at School,” which opens with a theatrical prologue that gives one of SPELLLING’s most memorable songs new, rousing intention.
Throughout Mystery School, the murky synth chords and drum machines that define Cabral’s catalog are replaced with streaks of piano and violin and audacious guitar solos that complement her playful vocal delivery. While previously Cabral’s roaming melodies were occasionally lost beneath low-lit production, they are front and center throughout Mystery School, whether on the slow-burning, psych-rock deluge of “They Start the Dance,” the spartan, chilling “Cherry,” or the closing “Sweet Talk,” which starts at a barroom croon and escalates into a swinging, sweetened falsetto. These slight but meaningful makeovers make Mystery School a worthwhile endeavor, like listening in to Cabral rethinking her craft in real time.
Nonetheless, some songs on the album don’t quite have the same ghostly, evocative glow as the originals. The shuddering “Phantom Farewell” moves at the same crawling pace, only straying during a frantic, searing guitar solo that’s less climactic than its predecessor’s psychotropic, clattering synth stomps. The revised Mazy Fly highlight “Under the Sun” strips the song of its watery, implacable groove, leaving behind an overly histrionic recreation. Despite the occasional misstep, Mystery School overall succeeds in enhancing the most spellbinding aspects of Cabral’s music: her winding, changeable voice and unpredictable melodic left turns.
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