Dots Will Echo is best known for its releases on Sufjan Stevens’s label, Asthmatic Kitty. But its independent releases have been steadily flowing. On this EP, Nick Berry Sings Like a Girl, Nick Berry lays down a lush palette of smoky vocals in his haunting tenor, with a heavy dose of croon. The vocal vibrato is consistently deep and rhythmic, the harmonies are extended, the compressor is off. The guitar carries the arrangement on this album—various types of steel string and nylon are used. Stylistically, there are enough sparse shakers and bells to render this EP an indie release, but it crosses into other genres.
Often the emotion comes through without every word being clearly articulated. It’s fascinating how this album can do that—at least, it did for me. The production is mainly acoustic and minimal, but at times densely-layered vocals dominate the music. It has an organic feel, and I enjoy the timbral palette quite a bit. The music ranges from folk to indie to modal with plenty of minimal instrumental sections.
In sum, there are six originals and two covers—namely “Airscape” by Robyn Hitchcock and “May the Circle Remain Unbroken” by 13th Floor Elevators. Both covers are very different from the originals; save for the lyrics, I wouldn’t recognize “May the Circle” at all. The original has a slow, minimal synth and electric guitar washes. The Dots Will Echo version features a re-harmonized melody and has a country breakdown. It’s pleasant, downtempo. The ooh-ing and ahh-ing are wide and swirling, something I appreciate in the midst of an otherwise standard acoustic guitar progression.
Many of the tunes have a clear pop-song structure, and plenty of melodic hooks. “Ana Stays,” for example, is one of the more radio-ready tunes. A jubilant, catchy melody carries this opening track, accompanied by minimal percussion, shakers, and driving acoustic guitar.
The most neoclassical-sounding track, and the one that haunts me the most, is “Morning Wind.” “Winter’s gone, spring begins, I can feel it in the morning wind,” the words beckon. The tension and release of the melody reminds me of the famous Japanese folk song “Sakura.”
“Red Flowers” stands out, featuring minimal lines of glockenspiel, violin, and more acoustic guitars, keeping in line with the folk aesthetic. The melody is infused with an old country nuance. The backup vocals are treated with a subtle reverb. At times, there’s a lower guitar sound, panned to the right, playing simple long chords in a lower register. I actually can’t tell precisely when there are multiple guitars and when there is just creative panning of the different frequency bands of one guitar—something that interests me as a headphones listener.
“Speak from the Heart” is one of many tracks where the title line can be heard distinctly but the other lyrics mostly blend into a pad-like wash, with single words occasionally cutting through to the surface. It’s like watching an event through a window when it’s raining heavily. You can get the gist of what’s happening, but in general the view is obscured by the water. It is this aspect I enjoy most about Berry’s work. At times the words come through clearly, but often the voices are used as a wordless instrument—the emotion comes through without pinning you down so hard to a particular narrative. At times, the music seems like it can be about anything you want it to be, like an abstract aural painting, rather than a heavily dramatized storyline, as we are so accustomed to hearing in mainstream music.
“The Library at Alexandria” creates a distinctly somber, introspective mood. It’s one of the few featuring a kick drum-like hit, be it a guitar slap, a cajón, or a thump on a mic. The vocals express many long, suspended chords, interspersed with a fragile, broken-sounding violin line and whimsical percussion.
All and all, Nick Berry Sings Like a Girl is a fresh take on indie and older country or even Appalachian folk music. The vocals are unique, slithering and shifting inconspicuously between filling a harmonic role and delivering a melody. Kris Kristofferson once said that “the best love songs can be taken on a couple different levels, so that song is being sung to my wife but also to God.” I think many of the songs on this album achieve this goal, where they evoke a particular feeling, but still remain open to interpretation.