Album Review: Flock of Dimes - Head of Roses: Phantom Limb
Around a year ago, I found myself writing a lot about duality—or, as I also referred to it as a bit of a joke, “containing multitudes.” That expression was a fleeting thing people were saying on Twitter, but the idea of the multitudinous nature of a person, itself, is not a joke. We are all much more than what, and who, we might appear to be in the eyes of others, and finding the way to balance how we are perceived, how we want to be perceived, and who we actually are, seems, at times, to be impossible.
Around a year ago, Wye Oak frontwoman Jenn Wasner released the second full-length under her Flock of Dimes moniker—Head of Roses. Flock of Dimes, as a project, was initially launched in 2011 as more or less a solo outlet that found her embracing more glitchy, electro-infused textures than she, at the time, was doing with Wye Oak. But Head of Roses, written and recorded in the wake of a tumultuous breakup with a longtime partner, and the isolation of the first few months of the pandemic in 2020, sonically pushed Flock of Dimes into a place much more complex and robust, musically speaking. It was also an extremely collaborative effort—outside of the stable of musicians that contributed, Wasner worked closely on the production of Head of Roses with Sylvan Esso’s Nick Sanborn.
And recently, I was giving very serious and thoughtful consideration to the idea of the b-side—songs that were written and recorded, and at one time, might have been contenders to make it onto the album, but were ultimately cut for whatever reason. And there is this idea of both the “life of an album,” as well as “how an album lives,” and there is a space, of course, where those ideas overlap, but the difference, I think, between the two is the “life of an album” is what happens when an artist releases something—how much effort, and time, goes into the promotion of it. Advance singles, tours (if that is even possible, given the state of the world), interviews, videos, et al., all before the artist doesn’t so much lose interest, or steam, but enough time has passed, and the “life,” as it were, of the album has come to an end; then, eventually, it becomes time to breathe life into another one.
“How an album lives,” though, is what happens to the album as a whole once it is out in the world—the audience that goes on to hear it (either right away, or much later on), the parts of it those listeners identify with, and this listenership carries those things with them beyond the album’s average “life” expectancy.
Arriving roughly a year after Head of Roses, Wasner recently put together a companion album of sorts—Head of Roses: Phantom Limb, which offers both an extension to the life of the original album, but also asks listeners to consider, and reconsider, how Head of Roses, as an album in the world for the last year, has lived.
Spanning 14 tracks, and running almost an hour, Phantom Limb collects four songs recorded initially for Head of Roses, but, as Wasner explained on social media when she announced this companion album, those tunes “didn’t end up fitting with the story” she wanted to tell. The collection also includes two covers and seven live performances—five of which are surprisingly dramatic deconstructions and reinterpretations of songs from Head of Roses, and in these new iterations, along with the previously unreleased material, Phantom Limb asks listeners to consider the multitudinous nature of how an album, about duality, has lived.
Many of the songs from Head of Roses were arranged with a very palpable density—forming a place where organic instrumentation converged beautifully with myriad synthesizers, skittering drum programming, and various production effects. At the core of the album, though, was Wasner’s highly personal lyrics—ruminating on the struggle for duality and the acceptance of self. And it’s those lyrics that gave the songs, regardless of how dense or dizzying the instrumentation was an undeniably humanistic quality.
I hesitate to say it would be impossible to recreate those specific sounds and tones in a live setting. Still, it would be challenging—and the live recordings on Phantom Limb are astonishing simply because of how they strip away the sonic complexities of the material—the original songs are never unapproachable. Still, there is, at times, a lot going. In these intimate live performances, it is remarkable how Wasner and her assemblage of musicians can both retain and amplify the unabashedly human, fragile, and intimate nature woven into the fabric of these songs.
Within the reimagined songs from Head of Roses, perhaps “Price of Blue” is the most surprising in how Wasner manages to channel the original’s unhinged and distorted ferocity into something that creates an authentic sense of tension, or restraint—and something that, in that tension and restraint, is unexpectedly twangy—and within that twang comes a sense of sincerity, anguish, and melancholy. Of course, those were present in the raucous, smoldering version that was sequenced as Head of Roses’ second track. Still, now, not in direct competition with the steady thudding percussion and the searing electric guitar soloing, Wasner’s sentiments are more or less front and center.
Recorded as part of the Flock of Dimes’ contribution to the ongoing “at home” installments of NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk” series of concerts, there is a stark precision in the way the opening notes of “Price of Blue” sound plucked out on the strings of an acoustic guitar. There was always a dark, borderline claustrophobic cloud hanging over this song. Still, in this new arrangement, even with the folksy, western tinge it has taken, now there is something ominous or unsettling in how the song unfurls itself.
That tension, albeit in a little less of an ominous setting, is also present in the live studio session of “One More Hour,” which is one of three songs recorded at Betty’s—a studio space operated by Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn in Durham, North Carolina. Originally structured around a steady, though jittery drum machine beat and woozy synthesizers, this live version of “One More Hour” is built around live percussion (meticulous in how it is produced), along with subtle synth buzzes during the soaring refrain and soulful, smooth backing vocals accompanying Wasner’s urgent pleading.
The shuffling percussion that pulsates throughout “Two,” the song that lyrically really gets to the conceit of Head of Roses’ overall theme, is also crisp and meticulous. Another piece pulled from the live session at Betty’s, this version maintains the same swirling and jaunty sense of whimsy, musically speaking. At the same time, Wasner’s smoky voice asks the question that, even at the end of Head of Roses, is never really answered: “Can I be one? Can we be two?,” she sings in the refrain. “Can I be for myself—still be with you?”
The most intimate or all the live recordings of the Head of Roses material comes from the performance of “Hard Way,” from a session for the beloved radio station KEXP, out of Seattle. The original, while relatively minimal in its instrumentation, found Wasner’s voice to be weighed down by a warping, vocoded effect—here, the synthesizer she plays underneath is much more delicate in tone, and her voice is clear, allowing the gravity of the lyrics, in her somber delivery, to come through—“If I stop to be long enough to see,” Wasner reflects in the third verse. “The life and death of one day. Heavy in my heart, honey in my hand when I took the hard way.”
Wasner gives little context to the covers included on Phantom Limb, outside of saying they are tunes from her favorite songwriters. “Amelia,” originally written and performed by Joni Mitchell, arrives near the end of this collection, but it’s the cover sequenced closer to the halfway point of the record that is among the most vital, most compelling in the set.
And it makes sense, lyrically, that Wasner would select “The Weakness in Me,” a 1981 Joan Armatrading song from her album Walking Under Ladders. It was never released as a single, but is, apparently, one of Armatrading’s most beloved songs—and there is a part of me that is pretty confident that I had, up until listening to Phantom Limb, had not heard “The Weakness in Me” before.
But there is another part of me that is not certain, though, and I say that because there was something eerily familiar about the melody of “The Weakness in Me,” especially once it reaches the chorus.
Armatrading describes the narrative of “The Weakness in Me” as being about someone who has had an affair, and fallen for the person they have had the affair with, but they still love the person whom they were involved with once the affair began. And it makes sense, lyrically, that Wasner would choose this song—something inherently about reflection and heartbreak, to be included in a companion piece to Head of Roses, an album about reflection and heartbreak.
Set against crisp percussion and a mournful, kind of bluesy electric guitar, Wasner’s low register lends itself well to the sadness of “The Weakness in Me,” specifically the chorus, where, as she often does, allows her voice to absolutely soar: “Why do you come here when you know I’ve got troubles enough?,” she asks. “Why do you call me when you know I can’t answer the phone? Make me lie when I don’t want to. And make me someone else—some kind of unknowing fool. You make me stare when I should not. Are you so strong, or is all the weakness in me?”
Artists can, of course, and in many cases should, experience growth and maturation in the art they make. In Wye Oak, Wasner and her bandmate Andy Stack slowly, with each record, began to incorporate more instrumentation until reaching 2014’s Shriek, were, burned out on the guitar, Wasner switched to the bass, and the duo started to weave in a lot more electro-infused textures.
And the reason I bring up growth, and maturation, specifically with Wasner, is that it is astounding to consider what Flock of Dimes initially sounded like a decade ago, with anxious, glitchy one-off single “Prison Bride,” tucked onto a cassette compilation of artists from the Baltimore area. “Prison Bride,” as well as some of her earlier singles under the Flock moniker, like “(This is Why) I Can’t Wear White,” and “Curtain,” have a real darkness, and at times, even a sense of menace, that hangs over them.
Much of the material on Head of Roses is not inherently dark, but among the b-sides included on Phantom Limb, the song “Wonder,” at least musically, calls back to Wasner’s earliest, cacophonic work as a solo artist. It doesn’t start that way, though—her voice, warbled through a flanging effect, drifts through a jittering drum machine and dreamy guitar before it reaches the chorus where Wasner really lets go of some of the simmering tension. It explodes underneath a frenetic, unnerving shadow.
And perhaps, with at least the b-sides from the Head of Roses sessions, Wasner plays her hand too soon in the way they are sequenced on Phantom Limb, because the collection’s opening track, the slow-burning and exceedingly somber “It Just Goes On,” is hands down the finest—and is, like some b-sides often are, arguably better than some of the material that found its way onto the album.
Lyrically, “It Just Goes On” would have fit in well within Head of Roses–it is stark and self-effacing in the way Wasner reflects on the dissolution of her relationship and the kind of questions we ask—either in jest or in earnest when looking back after something is “over.” “If I knew your mother,” she begins, with a voice heavy with remorse. “If I loved your friends. If I promised I would never ask for anything again. If it never started, it doesn’t have to end—it just goes on.”
And as the song continues, slowly rising to dreamy sounding peaks during the chorus before settling again during the verses, Wasner’s lyrics become even more devastating—“If I had an attitude—if I hadn’t been so so kind. If I hadn’t written letters—taken too much of your time.”
I am confident, in the, like, 14 years I have spent listening to Wasner sing—growing noticeably more comfortable and confident in her voice—with Wye Oak, Flock of Dimes, or with Dungeonesse, a one-time, R&B and pop-inspired project with fellow Baltimore musician John Ehrens—that I was aware of the strength within that voice, but it is something that, in reflecting again on Head of Roses, and on Phantom Limb, has become more and more apparent, and what makes her such a unique vocalist operating within “indie rock.”
And within that strength and depth from her voice—the way it soars, or the way it can fall when it needs to, what I have noticed, especially in this material, is a wounded sentiment to it—fragile and human, and that quality comes through the clearest in the live studio sessions of “So Much Desire” and “Spring in Winter,” both of which Wasner performs alone at the piano.
The songs were initially included on the Flock of Dimes EP Like So Much Desire, issued in June 2020, and her first release since signing with Sub Pop. There is what I would call a night and day difference in the way the EP’s titular track is performed—in its original form, begins sounding a little folksy before live percussion, and a cavalcade of noises from (presumably) keyboards and (perhaps) distorted guitars come gently floating in once it gains momentum. Two years removed from the EP, this recording of “So Much Desire” takes on not only a different sound by being performed by one instrument, but it also takes on a much drastically different tone.
There’s something a bluesy to the rise and fall of both the piano keys, with the way they spill underneath Wasner’s voice also does its fair share of rising then falling. And “So Much Desire,” of the two older songs included on Phantom Limb, is not the most emotionally eviscerating. Still, there is a fine line that Wasner seems to be dancing between something potentially joyous, and something on the cusp of feeling melancholic, even when, lyrically, “So Much Desire” is much more ambiguous in comparison to how direct the songs from Head of Roses were.
Still just as ambiguous lyrically but much more somber—both in the way its arranged on the piano and in how the words are delivered, is “Spring in Winter,” and for as downcast as it is, was surprisingly the first track from the Like So Much Desire EP; and here, there is no dramatic reimagining of the song—the original was also performed on the piano, with some additional layers of backing vocals added underneath Wasner’s, as well as lush orchestral accompaniment and some glistening synthesizers twinkling subtly under it all.
“Spring in Winter” is the final piece included on Phantom Limb. With Wasner alone at the piano, it is a fitting closing track for a collection that could sound a little more disorganized or thoughtless in the hands of a less capable performer. Still, Wasner is effortless and graceful in sidestepping that with how all of the material on Phantom Limb has been sequenced.
And even in its fragmented ambiguity—the lyrics to “Spring in Winter” read like vivid poetry, and delicately tumble out onto the music, finding their way into just the right place, creating a fleeting and beautiful environment that has a real visceral sense of longing—a sense that reverberates both through the sound of the piano, as well as the wounded, fragile, human sentiment in Wasner’s voice.
Something that I have become more aware of recently is the possibility for both distance, and disinterest, that forms in the relationship I have with certain artists, or records, with each year that passes.
I say this to acknowledge how, at year’s end, there might be an album I call of my favorites of that specific year, but in the years that follow, I may rarely, if ever, return to the album. In some cases, I may move on from the artist in question altogether.
The balance of picking the “best” or your “favorite” albums of any given year is difficult to find—the right amount of timelessness and the right amount of representation of that time.
Head of Roses was, without question, of my favorite albums from 2021—and in the first few months of the new year, it is an album that I have returned to on occasion, yes, but it is also an album that I find myself thinking about often—or rather, thinking about one song specifically.
“Awake for The Sunrise,” perhaps the most lyrically unforgiving in Wasner’s assessment of herself in the aftermath of a relationship’s end, was placed as Head of Roses’ penultimate track—and here, on Phantom Limb, a live studio session recording (again, from Betty’s) is tucked in the same spot, before the collection’s truly somber conclusion.
The song takes on just a slightly slower tempo in this live, intimate performance. Wasner’s guitar playing, much like her work on the piano in “So Much Desire,” takes on a bluesy feeling as her fingers find their way around the strings, which takes chords from the original’s strummed rhythm guitar, and spaces them out. Hence, they are on the cusp of sounding like a “lead guitar,” until another lead guitar comes in as the percussion grows from just a steady keeping of the song’s time to a cacophonous clattering.
Even in this setting, the complex sentiments are just as powerful, and personal, as they were last year on Head of Roses, as Wasner reflects with a palpable melancholy—“And I deserve it, the very worst of it. I deserve it—I know I do.”
The last two years have, I think, drastically changed the general idea of the “life of an album.” The cycle artists often found themselves in, in terms of writing and recording a record, releasing it, touring behind it, and then starting all over again, is, in some cases, a thing of the past. And because the landscape of “the album” has shifted so much, many artists are trying to find ways to extend the album's life as they are able. “Expanded Editions” with a few additional tracks are a very common way to do just that—but a collection such as Phantom Limb, arriving a year after the release of Head of Roses, gives slightly more context to the creation of that record. The live recordings serve as reminders of why those songs were so impactful in the first place.
When Phantom Limb was announced in March, Wasner, in a lengthy post on social media, said the “act of creation is a snapshot of a moment in time.”
“You ‘finish’ the thing, and. You share it, but the story doesn’t end there,” she continued. “Time keeps moving. Perspectives shift, feelings change, and the truths we relied upon to keep us afloat start to feel less and less essential. There is always more than one story, and as our hearts soften and become less hurt, we begin to be capable of seeing beyond our own fragile egos and reaching toward something like the truth.”
The act of creation is a snapshot of a moment in time—you share it, but the story doesn’t end there.
And this is where both the idea of the life of an album, and how an album lives, intersect, because there is always more than one story.
For an album as steeped in heartbreak as Head of Roses was, there was the hint of resolution, however difficult, on the closing, titular track—“You’ll never see how I cried, free of the world…leave me to learn—love is time.” And Phantom Limb is an act of resolution, or trying hard to let go of the emotions from this moment in time. The extension of the album’s life is one thing, yes, but the expansion of its world, and how it might continue to live on, is another, and it is a thoughtful companion piece to a highly reflective record—both of which work to help us all reach toward something like the truth.