Chicago folk band Tenci’s newest album, A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing, longs for the past while simultaneously moving passed memories with mature mitigation. Initially beginning as a “bedroom-folk project” of singer-songwriter Jess Shoman in late 2018, she soon expanded the project into a full-fledged band reaching far outside the confines of their home city. Now including Curtis Oren on saxophone and guitar, Izzy Reidy on bass, and Joseph Farago on drums (the latter two of bands Izzy True and Joey Nebulous), the newest lineup carries over the soothing serenity that Shoman has so assuredly established.
If the first track’s title, “Shapeshifter,” is any indication, it’s the album’s message of healing and washing out the pain through gentle self-reflection. And with a folk sound that feels like Fleet Foxes by ways of Arthur Russell and Angel Olsen, Tenci says so much with a spirit that proves to be seminal for the band. “Be” croons through a coalescence of jazz and folk, highlighted by a climax with croaky frog vocals and a saxophone that blows like an elephant’s trunk. By contrast, “Cold Dirty Water” is much more traditional and marked by a single acoustic guitar while still feeling true to the band’s emotional sensibility thanks to Shoman’s esoteric lyricism.
A Swollen River is not without its heartbreaks. “Out of Body” finds Shoman witnessing her soul leaving her body. Apart from the chorus’ repeated “come back to me,” the stringing of the guitar is the only constant in a relatively stripped-down track. Twinkles at the song’s conclusion come gently before the build-up of the succeeding “Sour Cherries.” In what might be the album’s farthest deviation, the whole band utilizes their capabilities for a more than satisfying release from the free-flowing nature thus far.
The last two tracks on the 12-song tracklist come from a place of calm after a comedown from the preceding two. Despite “Two Cups” having a sunny music video where the band and their accompanying clones participate in festive activities, both are uniquely cinematic and paint a portrait of vitality. Within the final moments, “Memories” samples what sound to be audio bytes of old home videos, likely from Shoman’s childhood. It’s undoubtedly one of the most touching songs of this year and calls back to just how much of Shoman’s family plays into the music. For a frame of reference, Tenci comes from her grandmother’s name, Hortencia. It’s a fact that shows Tenci’s sensitivity which draws both relatability and intrigue to the band’s growth.
Words: David Sosa
Tickets to Tenci’s lengthy 2023 North American tour are now on sale for their LA stop on April 16 at The Echo. You can also catch them in San Diego at Casbah on April 15 and in San Francisco at Rickshaw Stop on April 17. Stay up to date with new music from the band on their Twitter, Instagram, Bandcamp, and their website.