Jocie Adams left her spot with folk outfit The Low Anthem to stand out on her own, adopting the name Arc Iris for the swirling orchestral collective of technically gifted musicians that happen to be surrounding her at any given time. For Adams, though, part of standing out on her own was dragging in a range of sounds from cabaret to country twang, doo-wop to Broadway, and refracting them in a glittery, kaleidoscopic burst, her ability to send her own voice throughout that entire shining spectrum on this self-titled debut vindicating the decision to take sole ownership of the music.
When I happened across Arc Iris at a SXSW showcase not long ago, Adams, in her sparkly lamé bodysuit and forehead jewelry, seemed to take on a different aspect with each new selection from the setlist. On a woodsy, string-laden cut like “Might I Deserve to Have a Dream”, she assumed the quality of some rare, woodland creature, her voice flitting and wafting through the lush instrumentation. On the theatrical, brokenhearted swing of “Ditch”, the getup became a Tony-worthy costume, her voice dripping over purple Wurlitzer and bowed bass. During the expansive, Joanna Newsom-via-ethereal plane two-part “Honor of the Rainbows”, she looked to have floated down like some sort of mystic ideal. And this self-titled debut reinforces the fact that it wasn’t just that bodysuit that was allowing for the projection of any number of personas; Adams’ voice astounds in its technical proficiency but is also intensely emotive without being cloying or over-broad.
That flexibility keeps a song like “Powder Train” from becoming utterly campy, as by all rights it should. A sort of reworking of Dave Van Ronk’s “Cocaine Blues”, Adams turns the pained tune into a conflicted torch song: “Love, you can’t hold a flame to that mighty fine cocaine/ Please don’t leave me baby, it’s you I’m needing just the same.” Songs like the Nilsson-esque “Canadian Cowboy” are arranged impeccably, as if dropped from some haunting musical, piano droplets falling between rivers of horn and string. While its dappled, dramatic expanse at times stretches seemingly beyond the horizon, Arc Iris remains, first and foremost, believable, from Adams’ pained whispers to swaggering shouts, every inch of joy and pain palpable and exquisite.
Essential Tracks: “Canadian Cowboy”, “Ditch”