Time Machine: Exploring the Innovations of Wendy Eisenberg
by Evan Zigmond
Wendy Eisenberg’s Time Machine is an exciting experiment in harmony and musical motif. Throughout this 27-minute album Eisenberg constantly redefines how a singer-songwriter operates, approaching the songwriting process from refreshing new angles. Her work is part of a small wave of experimental singer-songwriters from New England Conservatory in Boston, MA. Together with other NEC-trained artists like Houndsteeth and Melissa Weikart, Wendy Eisenberg blows minds with her music.
One of Eisenberg’s most recognizable musical signatures is her approach to chord rhythm. She uses only her voice and a guitar, but manages to innovate in the face of a very common instrumentation. A few songs on Time Machine delve into syncopated chord rhythms borne from Eisenberg’s lyrics. Her second tune, New Hampshire, starts out with a rhythmically confusing guitar vamp. Once she sings “enter, small town New Hampshire” though, one realizes that the chord rhythm is drawn from what she is saying. Each syllable is a chord. The next tune, Postal Man, does something similar. This mysterious ode to repressed sexual desire implements the same speech-inspired rhythms, this time using guitar melody instead of chords.
This practice opens up a lot of doors for meter and groove: her speech flows naturally, certainly not in 4/4, and so the guitar follows. Prioritizing lyrical rhythm over static groove reminds me a lot of the series of viral harmonizator videos found on YouTube. In these videos, jazz harmonies are placed over a funny clip of someone trying a spicy pepper or loopy from percocets after wisdom teeth removal. In both these videos and TIme Machine, the voice dictates the chord rhythm, resulting in a free-flowing, pleasantly off-kilter listening experience.
Eisenberg also innovates harmonically with this album. She constantly journeys into atonality, like the chilling end to her penultimate tune Declawed. Here, she leaves the realm of functional harmony: the guitar harmonies still exist, but they wander from place to place, abandoning any sense of cadence. One does not know where the chords and melody will end: it is an eerie listen. Eisenberg also recapitulates other tunes on this project. On her tune Oval, she uses a fuzzy synthesizer to partially reharmonize Alphaville’s 1984 smash hit Forever Young. It actually took me a few weeks to figure out what song she was alluding to: it was vaguely familiar, on the tip of my brain-tongue if you will. Meanwhile, Forty Words reminds me of Ma’oz Tzur’s Rock of Ages, a staple in my reform synagogue growing up. The album is filled to the brim with intriguing harmonies like this, which keeps me coming back constantly to reexamine it.
Wendy Eisenberg and other singer-songwriters at NEC are doing very exciting things with harmony and rhythm, creating some effects I previously hadn’t heard. I highly recommend giving this intriguing album a few listens.
Listen to Time Machine here .