Smiley, VOCO gracefully blend old, new in ‘Blink’ |

Smiley, VOCO gracefully blend old, new in ‘Blink’

Although Moira Smiley and her quartet VOCO are based in Los Angeles, you’d never guess it from listening to “Blink.” The album, like the group itself, embodies the spirit of the nomad. There’s movement here – musically, geographically and temporally.

A composer since the age of 6, Smiley has amassed a prodigious body of influences. Appalachian folk, Eastern-European and Irish traditions, American blues and spirituals, and even shape-note singing are woven throughout her work. But her focus is always on the power and potential of the human voice.

With VOCO, Smiley brings a diverse blend of vocal traditions into a contemporary context by mixing old with new, traditional with original. A cello-laced Bartok piece follows a track of body percussion (which, according to Folkworks Magazine, is “a sight to behold” in live performance.) Croation folk songs, soulful blues and urban funk all flow together without missing a beat.

The album’s first track, “Deep Blue,” feels like R&B stripped down to the barest elements: just the vocals and the beat, uncluttered by unnecessary ornamentation or over-production. The instrumentation – cello, percussion and banjo – is sparse and minimal; it weaves through the songs, enhancing the vocals rather than carrying them along or existing simply for backup. The spotlight is on the voices, and they are clearly up to the challenge.

“S’loyfn, S’yogn” is a standout. An aching Yiddish threnody evoking the bleak hopelessness of Siberian exile, it showcases the group’s exquisite closeness and harmony as well as its vivid emotionality.

This is a cappella music with a unique intensity, depth and richness. Smiley and VOCO thrust the voice into the realm of instrument, and the result is an album of bold, dramatic, and exceptionally graceful performances.

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