Lily and Madeleine, Fumes
What does “fumes” mean, exactly? The word, at least for me, evokes a host of contradictions. It is something powerful, but insubstantial; intoxicating, but invisible; enveloping, but impossible to pin down.
The same set of descriptors could just as easily be applied to Lily & Madeleine’s sophomore LP, Fumes, released yesterday on Sufjan Stevens’s Asthmatic Kitty Records, is a delightfully mystifying piece of folk-pop magic. It’s the work of Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz, two sisters from Indianapolis, Ind. who have been quietly building buzz since early 2013, when a video of the two performing “In the Middle” (their first original song) went viral. They self-released their first EP, The Weight of the Globe, in March of that year, which Asthmatic Kitty subsequently picked up and re-released; the pair’s self-titled debut came out last October. Now, a year later, we have Fumes.
One of the things I found most impressive about Lily & Madeleine’s previous releases was their consistency, which is especially notable given how young they are (17 and 20 years old, respectively). It has much to do, I think, with the duo’s acute sense of their strengths and limitations. Fumes, like Lily & Madeleine’s past work, is a showcase of their preternatural gifts for harmony; while the instrumentation here has been amped up since their debut, it still tends toward the sparse, letting the voices take center stage. And rightly so; the level of vocal cohesion on this album is absolutely stunning. The more I think about it, the more fitting its title becomes: maybe it’s a stretch, but the word “fumes” seems to imply that its potency is contingent on its plurality (who ever heard of a singular “fume,” right?). Similarly, the vocal impact of this album comes more from the melding of voices than from either voice on its own. Lily’s alto and Madeleine’s soprano are clearly distinct from each other, but, as NPR’s Katie Presley points out, they are also less than an octave apart, meaning that Lily and Madeleine need to “tune into each other” to a remarkable degree. Luckily, they are more than up to the task. One wonders, though, if two non-related singers would be able to pull this off; it’s as if the voices themselves, and not just the singers, share the same DNA.
The lyricism on Fumes, at once simple and sophisticated, also belies the pair’s youth. At first the songs seem to be dealing with more or less typical adolescent themes: love, heartbreak, uncertainty about the future. But a closer reading reveals something entirely different – there is a peculiar ambiguity that runs through Fumes. “Complacency is the currency / Good enough is enough for me,” Madeleine sings on the title track. The opening of the achingly beautiful “Hold On to Now” dispels any vestiges of a carpe diem sentimentality: “Life is fleeting / Let’s not wait on meaning.” Nothing is ever entirely clear; these songs speak in metaphors and fables. The album’s first single, “The Wolf is Free,” is positively surreal.
At a svelte 37 minutes, Fumes is shorter than their debut and is in many ways reductive. It has the sisters doubling down on the elements – close harmonies, abstract lyrics – that made their previous work stand out. It also represents a move away from folk, a label that, admittedly, never really fit them well to begin with. Indeed, when asked how to classify their music, Madeleine told Indianapolis Monthly “Don’t mention folk.” Lily & Madeleine, stripped-down as it was, demonstrated a melodic sensibility that was pure pop; here, the accompaniment begins to reflect that, with more lush instrumentation and the selective use of vocal effects.
The two are at their best on lugubrious tracks like “Fumes,” “Hold On to Now,” “Can’t Admit It” and “Blue Blades.” On Lily & Madeleine, songs like these were balanced out by more upbeat fare; Fumes is more content to settle into its own odd brand of melancholia. But the closely-woven harmonies are warm enough to save it from being outright bleak.
These kinds of contradiction – warmth and desolation, sweetness and cynicism – make Fumes what it is: elusive, enigmatic and endlessly captivating.