The cover art of Ilya Monosov’s melancholic mouthful, Seven Lucky Plays, or How to Fix Songs for a Broken Heart, is a close-up of his face — no words, no designs, just Ilya looking dolefully at the camera. You’re invited into map his few freckles, the oil in his pores, the stray hair sprouting at his collar bones. Behind the face is a music just as frank, even embarrassing in its candor.
Monosov fairly whispers over the songs and rarely breaks into melody, often recalling the quieter moments of Calexico’s Joey Burns. The intimacy of his voice gives a listener the impression of sitting inside his mouth as music floods in through the teeth or from the thicket his organs. Producer Greg Weeks tastefully builds up the songs from Monosov’s sparse acoustic picking, adding strings, electric guitar, and muted synth pads to fill in the negative space.
Where Language of Stone label-mates Ex Reverie and Orion Rigel Dommisse are engaged in vitally with the movements of their music, Monosov is dissociated; his murmuring rarely seems to interact with or even acknowledge the instrumentation. Rather, the careful compositions serve as a vague backdrop for his disembodied voice, a haunted scenery. Woven into his music is an ambiguity or duality as to who is haunting whom.
In one of the more memorable lines of the album, Monosov rasps, "When I am in you/ I am reminded/ Of my tricycle." Despite the sexual implication of the phrasing, the eerie presence of the tricycle and Monosov’s eerier delivery turn this penetration into a possession. Later in the song ("Tricycle") the narrator realizes that this "you" is the woman who haunted his boyhood, "moaning in the wind" and filling the breeze with "the musk of [her] sweat." There is a kind of mutual inhabitation in these songs; there is an intimacy that transcends intimacy and becomes visceral identity.
Yet, the love in Seven Lucky Plays is often a tragic one. However consuming their passion, Monosov and his lovers are locked in fated miscommunication — an endless and restless dance wavering between the more sorrowful faces of Russian and Spanish folk music. In "The Burning Flame" he whispers, "The sound of your voice repulses/ From the sound of music in your delicate words." He laments, "I danced around you as if you were lonely. . ./ But you told me you were a fable/ And walked slowly into a burning flame." Here, music and dance abandon word and body; desire grows to dissolve its lovers until nothing is left but a skin-changing, elusive romance.
The atmosphere does occasionally feels oppressive in its uniformity: Melodies and picking patterns grow wearisome, whispering voice crumbles into absurd rasp, lyrical cliches become more apparent and onerous. Wisely, Monosov cuts the album to a brief thirty-five minutes, turning the work into a sort of extended vignette or psychological study (see his instrumental noise trio the Shining Path for an exercise in stark contrast). The songs of Seven Lucky Plays are most successful where they take risks in playing and production.
In "Legs and Arms," Monosov’s guitar starts to show signs of nervousness. The music surges and hesitates beneath the screeching of bow on cello while, unfazed, he muses on bodily possession. The nearly epic "Happy Song" benefits from Weeks’s noodling electric guitar and the transient visitations of recorder, strings, and metalophone. Closer "I’ll Live My Life Without Pain" stands leagues apart from the others songs, a buoyant and lovely thing. Synth pads immediately seep in like opiates through Monosov’s gorgeous chord progression and Weeks’s guitar soon joins in, ringing in tinny distortion. At times the song is broken by a bridge of triumphant acoustic twanging only to lie back down among the sorrowful strings. A faltering organ delivers the song into its brief coda of effervescent and popping guitars until the listener is abandoned in the renewed silence of his own space.
I get the impression, especially given Monosov’s other musical projects, that this debut could have turned out in any number of ways — indeed, the softest voice is often the hardest to harness. Seven Lucky Plays doesn’t so much reflect a material ambition as it does an interest in confessionalism and voyeurism. It seems that Monosov’s art is fragile in form but that it wells up from organic depths. As such, he finds a place in the Language of Stone collective as a kind of spirit or embodied aesthetic. Whatever the merits of his song-products, it feels more appropriate to treat his music as a natural event, the visitation of a familiar wind.