Shaw began as a classically trained violinist and vocalist, and later branched out into composition and production. From there she has worked with artists such as Kanye West (The Life of Pablo; Ye) and Nas (NASIR), and has contributed to records by The National and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. And as if that wasn’t already an impressive resume, in 2013 Shaw not only won, but was the youngest ever recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in music for her Partita in 8 Voices, and her 2019 album Orange won a Grammy Award.
Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part is a collaboration between Caroline Shaw and contemporary percussion ensemble Sō Percussion (Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting). The group were given three days of gratis studio time, and three little days were all it took for them to get out this versatile, radiant and sometimes surprising album. It's a pick'n'mix of songs with lyrics inspired by their own eclectic interests: James Joyce, the Sacred Harp hymn book, a poem by Anne Carson, the Bible's Book of Ruth, the gospel standard I’ll Fly Away, and the pop prowess of ABBA, among many others.
The opening track, To the Sky, takes its lyrics from a hymn by Anne Steele in the Sacred Harp. The album begins like haunting meditation with sprinkles of sporadic synthesiser, drum and marimba rhythms that eventually evolve into a rolling rhythm section that keeps the piece moving as Shaw's vocals soar over the top. Shaw mentions "This (hymn) I love in particular. There's a line, 'Frail solace of an hour/ So soon our transient comforts fly/ And pleasure blooms to die.' It’s meditation on the ephemeral, and I love it."
This track leads into the second track Other Song which has a similar rhythmic groove and is accompanied by Shaw's vocals and lyrics which she wrote herself. The title track Let the Soil Play It's Simple Part is one of the surprises mentioned earlier, a simple duet between Shaw and Josh Quillen that only took two takes to get down. Quillen's playing is sensitive yet refined and you can feel the energy bouncing between the two artists as Shaw passes lyrics reminiscent of a lost loved one to Quillen, and he palms back soft lines of resonant melodies on the steel drum.
The lyrics to The Flood is Following Me are quite literally just "the flood is following me," taken from James Joyce's Ulysses. Although simple, the lyrics are effective, and are accompanied by an indie-pop influenced backing. Speaking of pop music, there is another beautiful surprise right around the corner with Sō and Shaw's interpretation of the ABBA hit Lay All Your Love on Me. This marimba/vocal duet is a darker, more sombre take on the classic that's hauntingly effective. After the familiar melody, the track then spirals into a Bach chorale accompanied by Shaw's backing harmonies, an ingenious move on the artist's behalf. The piece progressively builds in tension as old and new are blended to create this sublimely sensitive and modern interpretation of a classic. Truly something that has never been done before.
As the album progresses, each track seems to be an evolution of the one prior. Long Ago We Counted, a duet between Jason Treuting on drum kit and solo voice, has a rough and hard to understand beginning, yet somehow we are lulled into this rolling vocal loop as it settles into a indie-rock type track. Album closer Some Bright Morning, based on a 12th century liturgical song, is a glorious beam of light at the of Shaw and Sō Percussion's twisted tunnel. The droning of Cha-Beach on the Hammond organ supporting the resonant vocal line is a simple but powerful close to the album.
As you look through the credits, which is strongly recommended, you will find an assorted array of inspirations who have contributed to the lyrics. As you listen, the album continues to unfold into a monolithic, multifaceted masterpiece of contemporary classical, indie-pop, rock rhythm, world music inspiration and literally everything else in between. Shaw's ability to understand text and construct complete new meanings and unique settings for those words is unparalleled. Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part is unlike anything else and defies classification; one needs to take the time to explore the ins and outs of the entire album to fully comprehend the masterstrokes of Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion.