EARS starts slowly. On opener "First Flight," Smith runs an ascending pattern on the Buchla while an array of strings and woodwinds warm up. It's the aural equivalent of waking in a forest: first birdsong, then the rustle of small animals in the bushes. Smith breaks up the reverie with some chanted vocals, sung in no discernible language. It sounds like an appeal to the ancestors of the forest island in Washington State where she was raised. "First Flight" sets the tone for the rest of the album. While previous records have been more impressionistic (Tides) or comparable to indie chamber-pop (Euclid), EARS combines modular texture, deft orchestration and alien vocals into one tidy package. It's an impressive feat by any standard.
At times, Smith's populist disposition aligns her music with indie giants like, say, Grizzly Bear—the difference here is that the burbling Buchla subverts an obvious knack for traditional songcraft. It might be Smith's greatest accomplishment. Rather than submit to the abstractions the instrument's been known for since Morton Subotnick's Silver Apples Of The Moon, she refuses to allow the medium to determine the message. EARS is drawn to Ciani's intense and, as Smith has suggested, distinctly feminine melodic approach.
Smith's methodology reaches its peak on the album's most freeform cut, "When I Try, I'm Full." This subdued piece contains the wildest Buchla process on the album, a complex, babbling brook of an arpeggio. Rather than normalizing it with voice and sax, she allows those elements to chase the maddening synth, carving their own wild patterns like a school of fish in the sun. Smith has expressed an interest in scoring for film, and like her mentor, she seems comfortable bringing weird instruments and ideas to the mainstream. And why not? On EARS, Smith emerges as a novel, naturalistic and, yes, pop-savvy voice wielding an instrument known for esoteric experimentalism.