Advertisement

The many moods of Skullcrusher (who’s not as scary as her moniker)

Helen Ballentine, who performs as Skullcrusher.
(Silken Weinberg and Jeremy Reynoso)

The artist who performs as Skullcrusher crafts work that on the surface is hardly as menacing as her moniker. The simmering, acoustic guitar-centered songs on her debut EP will not collapse your noggin with aggressive rage, distorted noise or irrational violence. You will survive the experience intact.

Those who listen at full volume and with intent, however, may find their brains a tad dented after absorbing this four-song, 11-minute introduction. The solo project of the Los Angeles-based artist born Helen Ballentine revels in tense moments, hard emotions and uncertain outcomes. Issued by the indie music powerhouse Secretly Group (home to Angel Olsen, Bon Iver, Moses Sumney, Sharon Van Etten and others), which has an ear and eye for breakout talent, Ballentine’s work aligns with the company’s aesthetic: smart, insightful sounds that draw on classic forms but explore them from inventive new angles.

×

Skullcrusher’s lyric video for “Places/Plans.”

An avowed Nick Drake devotee who also has exquisite taste in ambient electronic music, Skullcrusher builds songs that seem to creep into the room, reside for a few vague minutes to make their presence known and then fade away. As a guitarist, she likes layering a few different takes to create a web of sound, and she does the same with her voice. By the end of “Places/Plans,” she’s repeating in layered vocal lines the lyric, “I don’t have any plans tomorrow.”

Advertisement

Ironically, to best appreciate her lyrical skills, consider “Two Weeks in December.” Clocking in at a mere 56 seconds, the song conveys a charged moment recollected in tranquility, one that occurs across a half month in pre-COVID times. Like a sparse short story by miniaturist Lydia Davis, every word is sacred: A chance meeting, a cigarette, a few jokes and a connection — followed by bouts of solitude. “I woke up alone / In a frozen, broken home / And my cousin gave me the flu / So I flew back to L.A. with my back to you.”

×

The video for Skullcrusher’s “Trace.”

Like other memorable miniatures — Tom Waits’ ”Johnsburg, Illinois,” the Beatles’ “Her Majesty” and Raekwon’s “Pyrex Vision” come to mind — it draws power from its in-and-out brevity and the questions that arise in its wake.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the tenor of the times, Skullcrusher leans into solitude at nearly every turn. “Places/Plans,” she writes in release notes, is her attempt “to communicate the beauty and vulnerability of being alone and what it means to let someone else in to see that.”

Advertisement

The songs themselves, however, have a communal vibe. The video for “Trace” is set, somewhat ridiculously, in Renaissance times, where the artist frolics in fields with friends. It relies on banjo and piano as if presenting an age-old folk song, but as it evolves, warm electronic arrangements drift in. This subtle combination is at the center of her forward-thinking, expansive aesthetic.


Advertisement