Verdugo Hills is somewhat renowned for its high school — in which numerous Hollywood movies have been filmed — and a hospital revered for its ties to the community. Verdugo Hills is also the title of Caroline’s new album, a wonderfully understated electronic journey of lessons learnt in life and love, and wounds remedied by self-realization. Her titles evoke the music of the songs they name. The disquieting brevity of opener “Balloon” takes you from the air to the water in the next track, “Swimmer.” In the latter, the artist’s submersion is also the listener’s, as waves of sound drench and hide the lyrics beneath: “In my room I’ve been swimming/ And your pond has been warming/ You bring out the best/ You bring the highest high.” Electronic drumbeats keep rhythm like uncertain footsteps emerging from water at the outset of a journey. This cautiousness continues in “Sleep,” with lyrics which rest settled in beautiful melodies, and over the haze of an electronic keyboard. In “Seesaw,” hopeful instrumentation is counterbalanced by lyrics of lament, which have listeners poised in the middle: “Wish your pure face could cure the hurt you have caused me/ The weight is on me.”
Listen to “Swimmer” – DOWNLOAD MP3
The electronic orchestration of Verdugo Hills never smothers the songs. In “Words Flutter” and “Pink Gloom,” delay and reverb make lyrics tremulous and distant, and electronic effects surround acoustic guitars, evoking the high strings of a harp. Yet, expertly minimal in their use, these effects add to the lushness of the notes and chord progressions. Difficulty discerning lyrics and sounds makes even more emphatic the sense of toil and direction in the songs, and calls for your effort to climb this sonic precipice. In “Lullaby,” reverb-soaked Spanish guitar inflections introduce arpeggios as the peaceful conduit for lyrics which, ironically, read like the nocturnal musings of someone sleepless. This urgency continues in the dramatic “Snow.” “I think I found my direction,” Caroline urgently sings. The song, which perhaps is most at variance with its title, ends surprisingly, but effectively, with a militaristic drumbeat of resoluteness.
Troubles explored throughout are conquered in the final track, “Gone”: “I was dancing to the rhythm you played/ I was so caught up in your masquerade/ Suddenly everything flashing before me steers my heart/ Silence swallows me, how do I begin to see where to start? / It hurts me now when you’re so far away.” One gets the impression that this distance guides rather than inhibits Caroline, and without electronic accompaniment, we hear rawness in her voice unlike anywhere else on the record. The delicacy of a music box, arpeggio plucks of guitar, and percussive hand-clapping all support a voice whose words paradoxically describe the ineffable sorrow of loss. Here the clarity and motion implied throughout is realised, and the album closes with a changed traveler.
As with her debut album, Murmurs, there are themes of motion, temperature and color on Verdugo Hills. Thankfully, though, nowhere is there simple repetition. Given the artistic depth of her first release, Caroline had to go to greater heights to surpass it. The content and delivery on Verdugo Hills accomplish this, revealing a progression beyond what may simply be called “maturity.” Each track adds its layer to the climb, shaping an album which dances, floats, and flails. Soaked or shivering, dreaming or playing, you are inclined to listen, to climb with the singer to the heights of hills from which everything is visible.