Tess Parks Struts Forward Resiliently on 'And Those Who Were Seen Dancing'
Published May 17, 2022Psychedelic songwriter Tess Parks does not look like she's dancing on the cover of her long-awaited second solo album, And Those Who Were Seen Dancing. She looks contemplative if not mournful, her eyes closed and face blank in a stark black and white exposure. Yet, she has never sounded livelier and more resolved than on this record.
And Those Who Were Seen Dancing clearly didn't come easy to Parks. The title itself shortens a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, which reads, "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music." People generally don't quote Nietzsche when they're in a good place. Over a two-year period, her second solo album eventually took shape. Pulling from old notes and connections, she enlisted the help of drummer Rian O'Grady, keyboardist Francesco Perini, and guitarists Ruari Meehan and Mike Sutton to get it completed. She'd worked with Meehan on her 2018 full-length with Anton Newcombe, and toured with this exact band in support of it.
There's a common belief in music about the sophomore album slump, predicated on the notion that one has their entire life to write their first album and typically less than a year to write their second. Given that some of the compositions on this album were started before her 2013 solo debut Blood Hot came out, it's like Parks had a second chance to make a first album, and she seized it.
While Parks seems to be reflecting a quiet struggle on the cover, the feeling when listening to And Those Who Were Seen Dancing is a sense of cool. This album gets cooler as repeat listens reveal intricate instrumental details and an upbeat pragmatism in the lyrics, with a curious balance of cautious optimism and honest reflection. The good vibes start right from opening track "Wow," a song of love that exudes positivity. The fact that her mother plays prayerful sound bowls in the intro and her father plays their grandfather's piano throughout adds personal resonance.
There is such contrast shown between, or even within most of the tracks, seemingly reflecting her relatable struggle with music as a source of joy and frustration. All the grey clouds have silver linings. A somber rain and piano propel the downtempo dirge "Saint Michael," yet it ends with a heartfelt "merci beaucoup." There is such elation in the echoed piano, pulsing synths, and trip-hoppy breakbeat of "Happy Birthday Forever," yet she memorably refrains, "get me out of here" — the song's original title back when she first performed it at early London shows around 2009.
"Do You Pray?" twists a couple lyrics from family-friendly standards like "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean" into darker contexts. The staccato piano and gnarly, fuzz bomb riff-driven instrumental sounds like the kind of dangerous rock music that concerned parents might not let their children listen to, somewhere between peak-career Dandy Warhols and the Stooges. Her voice has a sort of husky, alt-country rasp to it — like Wanda Jackson at a Mazzy Star simmer rather than a full rockabilly boil — yet the gravelly timbre of her voice and heady wordplay of "Brexit at Tiffany's" comes off like William Burroughs tripping on a no wave kick.
With heavy doses of Mellotron, downtempo breakbeats, electric piano, fuzzy guitars, family and fortitude, And Those Who Were Seen Dancing demands to be heard and felt. If Parks needs to take another decade to follow this album up, it will be worth the effort and the wait, for these perfectly imperfect moments were forged by resilience. (Hand Drawn Dracula)