Beccy Owen and the Refuge, 2019
Chaotica, the latest album by Beccy Owen and the Refuge—released November 25, 2019; the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women—is an eight-track feast, a thirty-four minute phantasmagoria-cornucopia that holds together well and rarely lulls, while offering numerous delights and surprises. Chaotica feels like a meticulously crafted order, one born of the unsettled thoughts of a creative mind facing a troubled world while balancing against the countless fast-developing events of daily life. It is also very much about the dynamics of intimate relationships, the gamut of emotions from revelatory to devastating engendered therein.
Beccy Owen, whose piano playing and wide-ranging voice drives the record masterfully, soaring and twisting, crooning and transforming, is backed by a talented all-female collective based in North East England (Newcastle upon Tyne), which includes two drummers and producer Julie Bartley.
At some point the phrase e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) came to me. The album is fashioned out of many musical influences (notably trip hop, rock, pop, jazz), many instruments (including viola, vibraphone and double bass in addition to standard electric and bass guitar), as well as from many hearts and hands, experiences and inputs. Through everything the result is a sense of warm unity, a journey that did end up feeling like being invited into a refuge.
The energetic ‘Tawny Maker’ makes a solid opener. Though it quickly evolves into a soaring power ballad, it fits that it begins with three delicate glassy notes from a vibraphone, an instrument often heard throughout the album. Then comes piano, vocals, drums, blast off; the journey is launched through this number that plays like a complicated revelation: “All that she gave was all that she had,” a signal of what’s to come.
‘Scattershot’ follows, a dynamic exploration of the balancing act of meeting daily demands while riding out the big emotional swings attaching to a bipolar mind. “Giant ebb and flow, swooping high and low, youth was a pencil sketch, this feels indelible.” The song is a complex affirmation, a refusal to be neatly defined. Musically it mirrors its themes, alternately clicking and shuffling, skipping and pirouetting, climbing and towering. By the way is that an afoxé I hear? The Afro-Brazilian instrument is traditionally made of a gourd with a sliding net of beads fitted over and its sound reminds of a rattlesnake, which felt appropriate and is one of the track’s treats, along with seductive background vocalizations and a poignant speaking part.
‘Anemone’ is wrapped up in bouquets of sparse warm piano chords and vibraphone splashes tied together with double bass twine; blooms of colored light floating up from deep sea. “I am an anemone… I absorb both dark and light,” Beccy croons convincingly, at times with almost heart-stopping delicateness. This central image had my mind mapping a variety of dualities. Anemones can be flowers or sea creatures. Some sea anemones are plain, others wildly beautiful, while they are found both in ocean depths and shallow coastal waters. Later the lyric morphs into “We are our own enemy, we’re all open day and night.” Many questions arose connecting to themes of temptation, self-control, powerlessness, as well as the depth of human experience mingling with the more superficial and destructive consumerist aspects of our culture. Whatever was intended, the song has an expansive feeling, its intimate concert seeming to pulse up from profound waters.
‘Safety First’ is a richly layered, powerful feminist statement that develops in fits and starts, a dance of gently indignant voice, punctuating percussion, and teasing vibraphone. “I’m so tired of being kind to angry men, I’m so tired of locking rooms up in me once again.” It is theatrical, confrontational yet careful, seeming to reflect the high-stakes tightrope act innumerable women have felt compelled to execute in their relationships and interactions with men. According to Beccy, the song “could land in the middle of some contemporary musical, a story of the #MeToo movement… placed as part of a woman’s story arc.” She is spot-on, but the song also carries anthem-like potential. As usual the lyrics are poetic, incisive. “Safety first, I rehearse, like a maniac, safety first, there’s no worse, aphrodisiac.”
‘In Through the Walls’ functions through a contrast: jaunty guitar and upbeat tempo married to lyrics that reveal how feelings of helplessness and self-alienation can result from imbalanced relationship dynamics. “He comes in through the walls, swallows me from the ground below, till I am no one, and I am nowhere, I have no control.” The phrase “siren on her knees” floats out and makes an impression, while the song could easily be heard as another scene from the imagined musical from above.
What can I say about the enigmatic ‘Ceridwen Speaks’? While all songs here flirt with perfection, for me this is a no-doubter. Ceridwen, a Welsh medieval enchantress said to have kept the cauldron of poetic inspiration, is evoked powerfully. With an opening reminiscent almost of Deftones or Nine Inch Nails, a feeling of suspense begins to build. A simmering drone threads under a slow march and the story of someone – a general? – caught at sea with a destructive storm brewing, gradually unfolds. But we start on a more personal note. In luscious voice, streaming shades of Sinéad O’Connor, Beccy sings: “You’re in that mood where a drink won’t help, but I know, what, will.” Later as the swell increases a tantalizing speaking (just above whispering) part begins, and we hear presumably Ceridwen’s voice spilling out fearsome imagery of the sea and coast and tempest. But the lyric that best captures the track’s essence comes just before. “I know you’re not afraid of dying, it’s the living that scares the shit out of you. You cling onto your pendulum, sometimes you have to let the storm come.”
‘Imago’ is a playful energetic jazz lounge piece it seems to me, which offers more interesting naturalistic imagery. The word ‘imago’, in entomology, refers to the fully mature adult stage of winged insects. Here the metaphor is presented in layers, with the process of growth and maturity unfolding in two contexts – individually and in conjunction with a partner. Can you have a joint imago, like a joint bank account? Meanwhile someone has come and gone, and our narrator is still coming to terms with it. “But I never miss him, for his vagaries, cause he killed, he killed my apple trees.” And is that an agogô bell—maybe cowbell—I hear just before the song pauses, redirects, and the smooth piano tones come tinkling, drizzling back over like an elegant Bordelaise? Toward the end we hear several lyrics reemerge from earlier tracks, inviting more reflection on the theme of maturation especially given this is the penultimate track.
We end with ‘The Secret of Joy,’ a bittersweet piano number that weaves melancholy and troubled thoughts (perhaps inevitably given the title). Ultimately however there is triumph and peacefulness. I was initially skeptical of ending the album on this note, but the more I listened the more it felt like a right choice. Dare I say there is a hint of encomium to mania here? Maybe, but more so a nonjudgmental acknowledgment, a sober honoring of the vagaries of anxiety and obsessive thoughts. The simple chorus asks repeatedly, wildly, “What will I fixate upon today?” Then the drums crash in and we run for a bit, emitting shades of Radiohead. At its core the song is about the difficulties of getting close to someone under these circumstances. “But I perceive catastrophe in every moment of every day, that’s why I push you away.” During one of my listens my eyes drifted round the room, randomly landing on the cover of a volume of Emily Dickinson. As I looked at the blue-grey nineteenth century photo of Emily, hard brilliant eyes, it occurred to me that Beccy Owen and the Refuge was a much wider collaboration than just the eight musicians who fabricated this penetrating music; it is one that extends to Dickinson, me, and all listeners. In the same vein the project is not just about music and art but equally about stoking honest dialogues and new layers of understanding, advancing human evolution we may even boldly say.
An independent project funded in part by a Patreon campaign, the album carries a feeling of maximization, of making every second and sound count. I felt privileged to be granted entrance into the vivid refuge that is Chaotica. I envisioned it as a playground, one where friends, old and new, can meet up and feel safe to play, to sit and share new experiences, to remember simpler times, and above all to feel enveloped in warm solidarity.
Warren J. Cox lives, writes and paints in southern Virginia, where he also works as an editor. His work has appeared previously or is forthcoming in Eunoia Review, Ducts, Defenestration, Fluland, Empty Mirror, Eskimo Pie, The Creative Truth, Intrinsick, and The Haiku Journal. He’s on Twitter @WarrenJCox.
Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.