If (label-mate) Ex Reverie’s Gillian Chadwick is a shaman, Orion Rigel Dommisse is a supernatural being, a dryad or hamadryad (one vitally linked to her tree). As such, her energy is more introverted and less jarring; where Chadwick’s voice chases after the tempest of her music, it is the music that pursues Orion’s voice hoodwinking and skittering through the brush. Her debut on Language of Stone, What I Want From You is Sweet, comes off as more of a singer-songwriter album than the product of collective energies. Though Fern Knight’s Jesse Sparhawk and Margie Wienk provide harp and cello respectively, producer and engineer Greg Weeks has a much more understated role than on Ex Reverie’s debut. The primacy of keyboard and string arrangement, next to a total lack of drums, reflects an artwork conceived in the margins — indeed, Orion wrote opener "Fake Yer Death" while homeless and living secretly at a college at which she wasn’t enrolled. The bending plucks of her electric cello provide the song’s only percussion, a pulse caught in the tissues or muted in a tin box.
Orion Rigel Dommisse is first and foremost a cellist. Her pieces generally sit on pizzicato arpeggios and spread from the inside out, adding keys and more classical-sounding strings. Melodies balance on the slight bones of violins, tying knots and fluttering at the ends of their thread; and synthesizers, archaic and brittle, provide a counterpoint to a distinctly eastern European sorrow. In the sparseness of Orion’s music, the Omnichords and Nintendo synthesizers read much more as synths than in Chadwick’s music, where electric guitars blur the line between acoustics and electronics. The aquatically themed waltz of "Alice and Sarah" vividly recalls the underwater levels in Super Mario World, its phone-ringing synthesizer over languid strings conjuring images of pink squids and sleeping fish. In "Simon Sent for Me," a low-bit synth and a violin section trade off on more classically derived melodies over keyboard arpeggios. By far the most gorgeous use of electronics comes in macabre closer "Drink Yourself (to Death)." A thickly reverberating keyboard toes through a minor-chord progression in somber tribute to the Nutcracker. Harmonizing with herself in a low-key croon, she sings a lullaby to an alcoholic lover: "Drink yourself to death/ So I don’t have to see you again/ I know it sounds cruel/ But I’m not the one killing you." With these words, her vocals are swallowed up in the dull sea of an Omnichord and the barroom folds around the two lovers like swaddling clothes. The sorrow is impenetrable.
Elsewhere, Orion’s relationship with death and the body takes on a more playful cast. In "Faceless Death," she sings of rearranging the bones of the song’s subject "into the shape of an animal you love." Here she recalls Joanna Newsom trilling lovingly, "Your skin is something I stir into my tea." Orion goes on to describe how she will "construct wings from the bones of dead birds" and graft them "to your shoulders with tendons from the body of a deer." She has a sort of an affinity or fluidity with nature that can only characterize a creature bound to the forest’s vasculature. As in Newsom’s avian inflections, Orion’s singing is full of delicious quirks, hops and skids and off-kilter flights; its feels as if the music itself were trying always to approximate her vocals.
Surprisingly, guitars only appear on three of the album’s ten tracks, and even then in varying degrees of obscurity. Weeks’s signature electric guests on "Little Neighbor," though only for the last 30 seconds. Textural guitars also lurk in the background of "Suicide Kiss (Because Dead)," a fantastic cover of a Japanese glam-rock song performed by Rolly in the thriller Suicide Club. Even with cello and tinkling keys, the song remains faithful to the original’s spirit; and thanks to solid production, it even adds a growing sense of urgency and ethos as layer on layer of straining strings and guitar choke up the composition.
Orion Rigel Dommisse is certainly a difficult creature to characterize. Her work is by its nature skittish and elusive. With the sensibility of a cellist and a pianist she is forced to process many of her influences and feelings as such. The result is a fascinating expression of rock, folk, and electronic tropes in the language of composer. It would have made sense for her to compose and play solo as is the case with Joanna Newsom; it would have alternately made sense to simply pile the influences on top of each other and let them scrap it out as is the case with cello divas Rasputina, whose songs alternately pound with drums, sizzle with electronics, and simmer in chamber compositions. But Orion Rigel Dommisse has foliated her own unique if erratic vocabulary. Like the debut of label-mate Ex Reverie, What I Want From You is Sweet is the kind of album that breeds anticipation for the next opus. Another solid pick by Greg Weeks and his Language of Stone.