Album Review: Jana Horn - Optimism
And as of right now, it’s sold out on the Orange Twin website—a small, independent label based out of Athens, Georgia, and maybe that’s because it has been mentioned by two different artists, in various recent interviews, but in October, right after I originally saw it referenced in an interview with Emma Ruth Rundle w/r/t her, at the time, forthcoming album, Engine of Hell, there were still copies of Colour Green available.
The one, and very likely only collection of recorded material from singer and songwriter Sibylle Baier, Colour Green was originally released by Orange Twin in 2006, and over time, it has developed a cult following from both other performers, like Rundle, as well as those who are perhaps enthralled by its charming, almost unbelievable mythology—a backstory that is compelling, yes, but the album itself is so astonishing, it never is threatened to be overshadowed by its history.
Baier was a teenager in Germany when, over the span of three years in the early 1970s, she wrote and sang these sparse, acoustic, folk songs into a reel-to-reel tape recorder—allegedly just for herself, packing the tapes away and forgetting all about them until her adult son found them in the mid-2000s, transferring them to CD-Rs, then giving them out as gifts—and apparently passing a copy to Dinosaur JR founder J Mascis, who passed the album onto Andrew Rieger, the co-owner of Orange Twin—the label that shaped Baier’s tunes into a full-length album, giving them a proper release in 2006.
And it was through Emma Ruth Rundle’s name dropping of Colour Green in the same sentence as Pink Moon when explaining points of reference while she was writing and recording Engine of Hell, that I even thought to take a listen to Baier’s album; and it’s because I had spent a greater portion of the late autumn and into the early winter listening to Colour Green, that I was able to identify, almost immediately, the influence it had on Jana Horn—specifically on the song that opens her debut full-length’s second side, “Tonight.”
It is not a stretch to say there are parallels between Colour Green and Horn’s Optimism, but it is, however, a bit of a stretch (but please humor me regardless) to say there are some parallels between their creation, and their greater introduction to listeners. Optimism did not sit around in an attic, discovered 30 years later; Horn originally recorded this collection of 10 tracks in 2018, and self-released a small run on LPs two years later—and as she put it in a quote from an interview with The Guardian, that she was happy enough with “40 listeners on Spotify” and her family enjoying the record.
Optimism could have become an idiosyncratic folk obscurity—the kind of record that only a handful of people know about, or have heard, like a secret that you cannot wait to whisper to someone else, hoping they’ll understand and appreciate it the same way you do. Instead, the album has been given a much wider release through an additional pressing released via No Quarter Records—not a “second chance,” per se, but a greater, or larger opportunity, causing Horn’s profile to suddenly rise through interviews and press from Brooklyn Vegan, Stereogum, and Pitchfork, among others.
The closer I listened to Optimism, I found that, across the album’s 10 songs, a number of them can be parsed into two very distinct styles—tunes that operate with a little more structure, often with additional instrumentation underneath Horn’s vocals and guitar playing; and songs that are sparsely arranged and presented, finding the space between ramshackle and whimsical, and it’s those tunes that get to the heart of the esoteric nature of the album as a whole.
One thing the press regarding Optimism and Horn has neglected to mention—it doesn’t even require that deep of a dive to find, is her debut solo recording, Go On/Move Your Body, an EP from 2018 she released on cassette (long out of print) but still available to stream through her Bandcamp page; and thus far, only a short piece from Brooklyn Vegan mentions the band she fronted during the mid 2010s, Reservations, who released one album in 2015.
Horn’s voice isn’t exactly out of place singing in a group that had a snarling, indie rock aesthetic, but it is noticeable just how young she sounds, and how much growth and confidence she’s eased her way into since Reservations disbanded—a growth and confidence that is even noticeable between the five songs from Go On/Move Your Body and Optimism, which, as an over analytical listener, is fascinating, because the EP was released near the end of 2018—the same year Horn, apparently, began recording the material for Optimism.
The lore already building around Optimism details a full-length Horn recored then opted to scrap completely—saying it didn’t reflect her very much, but rather, “it just sounded really good.” That is to say Optimism doesn’t sound “bad,” but it is, and I had already come to this before now for an entirely different reason, an album based around the notion of “intimacy.”
And there are myriad ways one could define the word intimacy—both when listening to music, and not—but here, there is the intimacy with witch Optimism was recorded and produced, but there is also a very quiet, though impactful, intimacy to the songs themselves.
And there are the times where those intimacies intersect.
There is a sharp intelligence behind the way Optimism has been structured—with Horn cleverly finding the right balance, or allowing a sense of give and take, between the songs with more robust instrumentation, and the songs that are much more skeletal. And I cannot help but think it was intentional on her part to begin and end the first side of this record with the songs that owe the most, or at least are most obviously inspired by Sibylle Baier and Colour Green.
What surprised me the most, the more I sat with the album’s opening track, “Friends Again,” is the slow, creeping, eerie feeling Horn subtly weaves into the threadbare fabric of the song. It begins with a bit of a hard, or very direct strum that resonates through an acoustic guitar, creating a trudging and extremely hypnotic kind of rhythm, where Horn, then, allows her voice to gently tumble on top of that rhythm—at times, really playing with the silences created between each strum of the guitar strings. And the eeriness, or at least the kind of surprising and unnerving feeling that she brings into the song, comes in the form of a trumpet, long, somewhat mournful, distended notes that punctuate throughout, as well as the the dissonance within her own voice, at times, bristling up against the guitar strings as she plucks them.
And it was the way Horn introduces her voice—there’s something woozy about the way she sings. Not like she’s just woke up from a nap and while still disoriented, has been asked to sing, but her vocals live within a dreamy kind of haze—quiet, gentle, at times fragile, but there can be an undercurrent of uneasiness when there needs to be.
You can hear Baier and Colour Green’s influence in both the production of the guitar on “Friends Again,” the way it’s strummed—not clumsily by any means, but a weird balance of confidence while being aloof or unaffected, and in her vocal range, which is very similar to Baier’s, especially in how it finds its way through the environment created by the instrumentation, and Horn returns to this kind of song construction and performance most obviously at the end of the album’s first side, on the song “Tonight.”
The first word Sibylle Baier utters on Colour Green is “Tonight.” The song itself, fittingly, is called “Tonight,” and in it, she gently, over her guitar string plucks, recalls returning home in the evening from work, only to find someone there in her kitchen—a man, and it’s (perhaps intentionally) unclear if it’s a friend, current or former partner, but he requests of her a song of her to ease his woes from recently “battering” of his car. And as the narrative of “Tonight” continues to unfold, it is worth noting that within that opening line, Baier sings, “Tonight, when I came home from work—hurt,” the conversation between the two eventually moves from the kitchen to elsewhere, and refocuses on her: “Said what’s that sorrow you bear, and I could tell that he understood,” Baier sings in the song’s second verse. “He gently took my arm—he listened to my tears till dawn. I dedicate this song to you.”
The first word Jana Horn utters on Optimism’s second side is “Tonight,” and the song itself is, as you may have suspected, titled “Tonight.” And she alludes to it in a short quote from a piece from Brooklyn Vegan about the album, but in it, she states the album came about “indirectly.”
“…Almost in passing, a feeling of being in-between things…I had just discovered, late, Raymond Carver, Broadcast, Sibylle Baier (which “Tonight” is more or less dedicated to)…I was just really moving through the world, hanging in the shadows the shadows of people I wanted to be.”
In Baier’s “Tonight,” her companion, in the kitchen, sits with a cat on his knee; in Horn’s “Tonight,” she makes allusions to Baier’s song of the same name while crafting a narrative of her own through familiar imagery and phrasing. “Tonight,” she sings. “I wear the color blue, and sit upon the couch with the cat—who would not like it if I moved.”
“I’m so old now,” Horn continues. “So old that I could fall part with you.” Then, as her “Tonight” reaches its conclusion, “The glass that splits my foot when I comfort you—it’s just because I should tonight.”
Optimism’s first side, as well as the album as a whole, both conclude with songs that I grouped with “Friends Again,” and “Tonight,” in terms of their instrumentation and structure, though the tone that “Man Meandering,” and “When I Go Down Into That Night” evoke find Horn pushing the feeling of the album into different places—one slightly more comfortable, or at least, easier going than the other, with the former having a slow simmering, at times whimsical, feeling about it—the arranging from the keyboard, and the way Horn multi-tracks her wordless, backup vocals working to create that lightness, with the latter produced in such a way that Horn’s voice is pushed up to the front, and the sparse strums of her acoustic guitar sounding almost like a whisper underneath.
I don’t think I would be out of line by saying an artist like Jana Horn, on an album like this, is not totally concerned with songs being accessible—the experimental, pulsing, haunting “Jordon” is proof of that, but overall, even when things are skeletal in their arranging, they might be idiosyncratic, but they also aren’t uncomfortable enough to keep you at an arm’s length. And I think what I am trying to get at here is that it’s an album that isn’t preoccupied with the notion of “pop music,” or of tunes that have an infectious nature to them.
Songs like the album’s titular track, or “A Good Thing,” or “Driving,” are not the polar opposites of the much more intimate and hushed material on Optimism, but through additional instrumentation and slightly more focused structure, they lend themselves to being the kind of thing that wouldn’t sound out place if given airtime on public radio—songs that, surprisingly and very subtly, have an infectious nature to them.
All three songs in question here are powered by the sharp sound of Horn’s acoustic guitar strumming—less cavernous and resonant in how they appear in comparison to “Friends Again” and “Tonight.” On “Optimism,” Horn’s plaintive lyricism is underscored by a rollicking bass line, a slow and sleepy, if not steady, rhythm coming from the drum kit, and the low drones from an organ—swirling together into something sweeping and impactful when she arrives at the song’s chorus; “A Good Thing,” follows a similar formula, though it picks up the tempo quite a bit, and swaps out the organ with a dusty, antiquated sounding keyboard; and “Driving” slows things back down to a smoldering, hazy, swaying rhythm that I would say is reminiscent of Mazzy Star, especially with the inclusion of a second layer of shimmering electric guitar.
If “Man Meandering” and “When I Go Down Into That Night” pushed Horn’s knack for sparsity in arranging into different extremes, it’s the album’s second track, “Time Machine,” that functions as a bridge connecting her musical aesthetics together. A shaker keeps rhythm as best as it is able, while Horn strums and slides her fingers on the strings of an electric guitar—and there’s a moment here, on “Time Machine,” within the song’s first 10 seconds, that is among the album’s most intimated, and it returns to the idea Horn wanted to play against by scrapping an entire record’s worth of material for sounding “too good.”
If you listen closely, you can pick up the sound of her bending the strings slightly as she gets ready to switch chords—perhaps not as noticeable if you do not listen to the album through headphones, and it isn’t a bad thing that it continues to occur throughout the song. It serves as a reminder that not everything can be perfect, or flawless, all of the time, and we have to become more comfortable with the idea of putting things out into the world as they are, only laboring over them so much until they are better than “good enough,” but knowing where the limitations are and having the personal boundary to say something is fine how it is.
Perhaps they are printed on the sleeve to the No Quarter reissue of Optimism, but upon making the decision to purchase a physical copy of this record, I opted to snag one of the few remaining copies of Horn’s self-released pressing—and I was hopeful the album’s lyrics would be included as either an insert, or on the sleeve, but that is not the case.
There is a subtle intelligence and intensity to Horn’s way with words on Optimism—and I say that because of the way she uses her voice, often singing without a lot of additional emotional inflection to, like, drive a specifically poignant or important lyric home. So it’s a record that while gentle and enjoyable to have on while you are preparing dinner, or relaxing on the couch, it is one that requires a lot of thought and attention to begin unpacking her, at times, ambiguous phrasing.
It is both her use of ambiguity, but also the way she plays with space and silences on “Friends Again”—casting a spell through the repetition and rhythmic delivery of the opening lines, “You didn’t just push me out, you dug me out, deep,” and, “You didn’t just write it out, you cut it out, deep,” before arriving at the unresolvable tension in the chorus—“But it’s not something we talk about now that we’re friends for the first time again,” allowing herself to take as much time as she needs for those last few words to find their way out of her mouth and into the song.
And before Horn writes herself into an intimate, emotionally charged conversation in the earlier mentioned “Tonight,” she finds herself in a similar place within the titular track—“Asking you what’s on your mind,” she begins, as the instrumentation begins to unfold and grow behind her. “Can’t tell if you’re quiet or tired. Staying up all night to find out what’s left to find out—if the sun comes up, we’ll know.”
Then, in the song’s chorus, she cuts right to the point in one of the album’s most direct lyrics—“You gotta tell me how you feel; I gotta tell you how I feel.”
I am uncertain how many listens through Optimism I was before I really noticed—it would not have been during my first or second time sitting with the album, that the album’s fourth track, “Changing Lines,” finally registered with me—specifically the song’s first verse.
Among the shorter tunes on the album, it is one that features no real chorus, with Horn, instead, becoming reflective over an arrangement similar to the one she uses on “Time Machine,” in terms of a tentatively strummed electric guitar, a jaunty bass line, and steady percussion. Once the weight of “Changing Lines” really hit me, I realized it was really the one occasion on Optimism that left me, as certain thematic elements in music tends to as of late, feeling seen and attacked.
“When I wake up like this—down again,” Horn begins over the fumbled plucking of her guitar strings. “When I wake up like this—down in my brain. I don’t have an excuse to bring this up to you, but I tell you anyway that the day has brought me pain—has it delivered you?”
In its quietest moment, as it comes to an end, Optimism concludes with Horn posing a question that goes unanswered—“Will you meet me where I stand?” And within the song itself, she introduces an idea that is, perhaps, buried further down within other the lyrics of other tunes here, but rises to the surface when she states, perhaps as much for herself as for the other character within the song, “I know I’ve tried to be good—to be unsure, all that I am.”
There is a similar theme, or notion, that I found myself returning to near the end of 2021, when I was listening to the self-titled album from singer and songwriter Laura Stevenson—specifically the song, “Blue Sky, Bad News,” where among other self-effacing assessments (the most poignant for me being “Maybe I’ll be better in a year”) she sings in the song’s end, “Was I ever any good—I know I was. Was I ungrateful—I was…”
Something I keep coming back to, as I have sat with Jana Horn’s Optimism, is the concept of making art for yourself, and in the process, possibly finding a small following or audience. This album, and these songs, were not written with an audience in mind, and I have grown to believe that you make the art you want to make—a film, a painting or drawing, an essay, an album—and not so much refuse to keep an audience in mind, but not to pander to one in any way that sells your own vision, or intent, short.
The act of creating and putting it, and yourself, out into the world, is among the small acts of intimacy woven into the fabric of Optimism. Like the album that partially inspired it and that it shares loose parallels with, it is recorded and produced with a tangible closeness—the intimacy that comes from hearing Horn’s fingers bending the guitar strings as she changes chords, or the thick resonance of the way her acoustic guitar sounds as soon as the album begins. These moments provide small, fleeting glimpses into the very human, very humbling nature of the record—the feeling like Horn is simply playing for herself, and you are fortunate enough to be in the room with her.
Regardless of Optimism’s wider release through a label, or the heightening of her profile, it is still very much a quiet, borderline secretive album in the way it unfolds into your ears—a sense of intimacy created from the piece as a whole, not just in how it was made, or how it might sound. Like a confided whisper between two close friends during a late night conversation.
The final note I wrote during my first “sit down,” analytical listen of Optimism is that it is a “beautiful, woozy snapshot.” Horn’s voice is gorgeous, fragile, and cloaked in an idiosyncratic haze—and the album, as a whole, is, even at its weirdest and most challenging piece, wildly compelling. At 10 tracks, and barely a half-hour in length, it feels like it’s over just as it is gaining momentum—but, isn’t that the gluttonous listener in me, or in all of us? To want more from an artist or an album—rather than being grateful for what we’ve been given, or forgetting that there can simply be too much of a fascinating, good thing.