Heliotropes’ 2013 debut, A Constant Sea, was a dark, messy pleasure. Fronted by Jessica Numsuwankijkul, this all-female Brooklyn quartet seemed to be forging an identity through trial and error. After covering Roky Erickson’s “I Walked with a Zombie” and Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” in their early days, the band arrived at a sludgy attack of fuzzed-out guitars and murky production for its first album, suggesting an unwholesome injection of Black Sabbath into the mix. Amidst rumbling chaos, Numsuwankijkul’s eerily calm vocals appeared to touch on universal subjects like romantic distress, but the sheer force of the sound was so thrilling there was little incentive to figure out for sure what she was talking about.
Three years later, much has changed. While Numsuwankijkul remains in charge, her primary supporting cast on the second Heliotropes outing is all guys (though the previous drummer puts in an appearance). More important, the production is bright and clean, not dense and grimy as before, the better to appreciate her lovely voice and shiny melodies. As a result, Over There That Way should be revelatory, at least in theory; in fact, it’s a textbook case of hiding in plain sight, pirouetting gracefully from one style to the next and deftly eluding precise meaning.
Numsuwankijkul has called George Harrision’s All Things Must Pass a favorite, and a similar melancholy resignation informs this attractive, albeit quietly unsettling, work. She’s intrigued by easeful death, pondering oblivion throughout the 10 tracks on this pithy half-hour of existential musing. From the breezy guitar pop of “Normandy,” alluding to “the freedom to be no one,” to “Wherever You Live,” a charming echo of ‘50s teen angst, in which she sighs, “Wherever you die is where I die,” to the delicate “Goodnight Soldier,” closing the album with the observation, “I could have told you things would end this way,” inescapable mortality shades the catchiest songs.
Despite recurring allusions to war, Over There That Way avoids a specific narrative, and Numsuwankijkul’s cool singing amplifies the pervasive sense of intentional vagueness. Affectless to the point of projecting numb detachment, she negotiates “Dardanelles I,” a return to the churning stoner psychedelia of A Constant Sea, and “Easy,” evoking the gentler moments of the Velvet Underground, with the same spooky poise. Regardless, numerous stirring moments abound, among them the tender Harrisonesque ballad “My Only Friend” and the title song, a twangy duet with bandmate Ricci Swift in the tradition of Johnny Cash and June Carter.
Like everyone else, Jessica Numsuwankijkul is wrestling with issues that won’t be resolved easily, or ever. If Over There That Way is a product of her struggle, at least she’s putting that angst to good use.