Continuing last year’s general embarrassment of riches, 2015 has already yielded a bumper crop of strong material from fascinating female singer-songwriters (Laura Marling, Courtney Barnett, Waxahatchee, Natalie Prass, Björk). Further bounty comes from In the Wilderness, the debut album from Stranger Cat mastermind Cat Martino, a Sufjan Stevens acolyte, recording here with fellow multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Sven Britt. A collection of coolly exploratory sonic experiments united under a patient, sophisticated approach to songcraft, the album plays as a series of prolonged riffs on questions of autonomy and imprisonment, its bedroom-pop sound expanded by an airy sense of al fresco openness (it was recorded amid the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas).
Martino’s primary asset is her voice, and most of the songs here are structured around her impressive range, which spans from earthy growls to mellifluous coos. The importance of this instrument is apparent from the first strains of opener “Empty Little Word,” which kicks off timed to a percussive series of breaths. Most of the tracks make use of the voice as both central focus and complementary musical accompaniment, the warm production tweaking and distorting it. This focus grounds the album as it fans out in a series of different directions: Jessie Ware-style chamber pop on “Sirens”; slinky electro mysticism on “Unzip Your Skin”; moody, barebones ambience on the title track. The duo hasn’t landed on one specific aesthetic here, and In the Wilderness suffers slightly from this lack of consistency, but it’s still an impressively well-formed debut, its multifariousness providing a litany of potential roads for Stranger Cat to pursue in the future.
Throughout all this, certain lyrical motifs pop up again and again, with songs constructed around persistent questions of pastoral spaciousness and urban compression, captivity and release, rebirth and repetition. The songs’ narrators are adrift amid beautiful, slightly off-kilter soundscapes, the breezy strangeness of the music emphasizing their itinerant status. In this context, something like “Fig Tree,” with its ordered tale of ancestral memories passed down through the generations, sounds a bit out of place, more mannered and less surprising than the rest of the album. Martino is at her best when conveying uncertainty, marshaling emotional confusion into the service of immaculately structured music that also feels less than completely composed, embracing an air of instability which grants these songs a wide-open sense of possibility.