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tilt press photo 3 - credit Alex Joseph.jpeg

photo by Alex Joseph

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In a small room, the sound of tilt rings out like one big voice. Composed of vocalist Isabel Crespo Pardo, vocalist/bassist Carmen Quill, and trombonist/vocalist Kalia Vandever, the Brooklyn-based group writes intricate, viscerally affecting art-pop compositions that blend carefully interwoven motifs with improvisation. Their melodies are chiseled at extremes, vacillating between the angular and the achingly lyrical. All three members are accomplished artists and composers in their own right, coming from strong backgrounds in the jazz world. Their stunning debut LP, something we once knew (out May 3, 2024 on Dear Life Records), is in its own class, stylistically distinct from each player’s solo work—a record that teaches us how to listen to it as it progresses. Recorded live in the studio without overdubs, its songs chart troubled and surreal journeys toward understanding or acceptance, passing through mystical corners of its members’ singular musical vocabularies.


In tilt’s compositions, the group’s instrumental and vocal lines blend and breathe together. Quill and Vandever switch fluidly back and forth between singing and playing melodies on their voices or their instruments, harmonizing closely with Crespo’s elliptical, melismatic lines. The record’s opening salvo—the Quill-penned first half of “grounding, i could”—begins like a mic check or tune-up, with each member testing out the same pitch, slowly bending its intonation and then introducing unexpected, increasingly extended intervals. The singers produce straight, bell-like tones that sometimes sound as if they are being produced by patches on a synth. This overture provides a quick introduction to the timbral and expressive range tilt can access, even with its limited palette.


The music on something we once knew might be most readily categorized as jazz or “new music,” but it is hard to focus on anything but its sui generis aspects, as well as its direct emotional charge. At turns, its songs recall elements of disparate styles: for instance, “all and nothing” juxtaposes a vocal duet reminiscent of Baroque music with a melancholic and soulful trombone solo that seems to be pouring in from another room. The song’s lyrics seem to articulate the group’s approach to music-making. They strive to make work that feels bigger than the sum of its parts, accessing latent meanings outside of the piece’s text that are perhaps beyond description or interpretation (“Their words, a kind of reaching/to the space beyond the imagined/Their memory, a kind of breathing/grows and fades.”)


More than any other track on the record, Quill’s “a long view” deals specifically with processing and finding teachable lessons in a fraught and shadowy past. It combines a somber wordless melody—traded between instruments and voices—with speak-sung poetry (think the operas of Robert Ashley). The words are pulled from Quill’s journal entries exploring ancestry and lineage; the song wonders aloud about how one forges meaningful personal connections to them. The group’s improvisations evoke a feeling of searching and, as Quill puts it, a “not-quite-finding” which is crucial to the effect of the piece.


Though the band often evokes this “not-quite-finding” through carefully coordinated group gestures, some of the sharpest moments of catharsis on the record are stunning, virtuosic passages by tilt’s individual members. Crespo’s halting, serrated vocals on “tilted” evoke the self at risk of splitting in two: “Torn, I feel swallowed/Torn, I feel wistful/Telling who I’ll be/I tilt unhinged.” Similarly, in “mirror,” their vocal line mimics the narrator being disoriented by and tangled up in one’s own reflection. The repeated phrases contort out of shape, falling against emphasis (“I can barely, barely recognize myself in the mirror/Everything I say is echoed back at me, in the mirror”). Throughout the record, each song’s central lyrics and themes are given sharper definition by unorthodox techniques and phrasing.


Ultimately, though, something we once knew zooms out at the end, with a sense of communal understanding and newfound purpose. Its closer—Vandever’s “fall again”—centers around a stunning three-part vocal chorale, with harmonies that blend buzzing dissonance with elegiac beauty. Vandever recites the lyrics and Crespo echoes her with an improvisation, rearranging and reframing the words, ultimately ending with a line that is not the end of the poem: “something we once knew.” For Crespo, the album’s eponymous lyric touches on a throughline in all of its songs. To them, these pieces all deal with “the understanding that the answers we are looking for may already be inside of us, and if we were to only pay a bit more attention, perhaps we could access them.”


Crespo’s choice embodies the way in which tilt uses its shared, carefully customized musical language to explore deeply internalized sources of confusion and discord. The group searches to find lenses through which to view these deep-seated issues; the idea of actually resolving them usually seems remote, or even beside the point. That larger pursuit feels part of an ongoing, even perpetual process—one that pushes beyond the margins of this gorgeous and uncanny music and carries us past its final notes.

Releases on Dear Life:

DLR 052: something we once knew

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