SIMON MORRISON, AUTHOR OF ROXY MUSIC’S AVALON, ON THE LATEST ALBUM FROM ROXY MUSIC SAXOPHONIST, JORJA CHALMERS.
For a decade or so, Jorja Chalmers has been performing saxophone and keyboards with Bryan Ferry. She’s a dazzling presence on stage, as befits Ferry’s carefully curated and casually sophisticated image, plus her contributions to his concerts can be outsized. During a recent, pre-Covid performance at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles I attended, the backup singers on the iconic song “Avalon” lost their way in the final section. Ferry looked wide-eyed at Chalmers, who swiftly crossed the stage to guide the singers back in sync. Ferry, clearly grateful for Chalmers’s cool, shrugged off the misstep.
Born outside of Sydney, Chalmers graduated from the conservatory there before relocating to London and joining a new wave band, Hotel Motel, that brought her to Ferry’s attention. Her tours with him are household-sustaining side gigs while she continues writing music of her own. She specializes in a kind of deep ambience house sound graced by fetching melodies and unexpectedly discreet saxophone. (She embraces Roxy Music’s and Andy Mackay’s “less is more” approach.)
Her first album, Human Again, was released in 2019. Her just-released second album, Midnight Train, is a more integrated effort, the tracks referencing each other and the broader history of synth-pop’s darkening, its retreat from the dance floor and turn inward. Chalmers recorded Midnight Train at her home in Margate and on the motherboard at Ferry’s studio in London with production assistance from Johnny Jewel of Italians Do It Better (her label) and David Hurley, best known for his work with David Lynch. Lynch’s blending of dream, fantasy, and memory echoes in the shrouded vocal lines, the noir sax, the macabre-mundane acoustic contrasts, and the dissolving of distinctions between foreground and background. The lyrics are shards of things, prose detritus – pillow talk, murder mystery – on an album whose mood seems to stand at an empty intersection.
The first track, “Bring Me Down,” is a painful piece. The undergirding Juno 106 synthesizer line samples Ferry’s 1985 “Windswept,” a highly polished, carefully constructed song that serves as a template for Chalmers’s creation. The texture of “Bring Me Down” changes minimalistically, with the ooh-ooh-oohs overlaid and a note of dissonance laced through the fadeout. In the video, Chalmers hosts a dinner party with no guests, raising a glass of red wine and offering platters of desserts toward the camera, playing the part of an ideal hostess oozing charm. Her voice has a sheathed edge, as do the words she sings until words disappear amid the swollen, bruised bass-line ostinato. The vocal line is recorded with generous reverb; the tones are shuffled between verses, lingering in the resonance of the interspace. She invests the words “Oh no / good luck comes in for / searching for the score” with caustic defiance. “Your inflection / You can’t seem too fazed / You will be replaced,” she sweetly, unnervingly croons into the lens. It’s a hostage video set in seventies suburbia.
Ferry included a song called “Midnight Train” on his 2014 album Avonmore. Chalmers references the lyrics but not the music on Midnight Train, although the opening, falling saxophone lines and overlaid production of the second track are indeed intentionally Ferry-esque. Still, Chalmers seems more interested in subverting pop music’s cliché of midnight trains as symbols of longing for escape or for love. Wikipedia lists fourteen “Midnight Train” songs, with additional mention of Journey’s megahit “Don’t Stop Believin’” and the iconic line “she took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.” Gladys Knight & the Pips celebrated the “Midnight Train to Georgia” with gospel-inspired backing vocals and tight instrumental harmonization. Chalmers privileges unsettling atmospheric designs over hooks in her version – actually versions – of the song. The second and second-to-last tracks of her album, “I’ll be Waiting” and “Midnight Train” are goin’ somewhere / goin’ nowhere responses to each other. The first is more conventionally song-like, with a thick pulse and broadly spaced live drumming by Joe Ryan, the second atmospheric, reverberant and broodingly morbid at the start before shifting into a kind of restrained psychedelia.
“I’ve always loved writing about themes of isolation,” Chalmers has said. “I’m at a point in my life where I couldn’t be isolated if I tried but there have been times when I’ve felt lonely. I read a book called Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates in my twenties and it left me with a validation in my thinking that everyday life has so much beauty but also pain.” Published in 1962, the book is full of bathos, awkwardness, miseries, and the little tragedies of life. She admires Joni Mitchell, specifically the reserved treatment of “challenging subject matter” on Turbulent Indigo. In addition, the promotional write-up of the album issued by her label notes her appreciation of Michael Nyman’s minimalism, the soundtrack to Terminator, and even Serge Rachmaninoff’s adroitly orchestrated Romantic tone poem The Rock. Syntactically and stylistically, such points of comparison are imprecise, and Chalmers’s label does her no good by assigning pulp historical fiction storylines to her sound. “‘Rabbit In The Headlights’ is a squirming piece of jet-black avant-pop,” we are told, “while ‘Boadicea’ is draped in the blood of the ancient British warrior queen. ‘The Wolves Of The Orangery’ was sculpted after a Roxy Music [actually Ferry] show in the Palace of Versailles, and it’s haunted by the oppression meted out to the servants, and the bloody revenge exhibited on the French regal classes.”
Her music is better than this, beginning with the chill Chalmers’s saxophone lends to her remarkable cover of the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” (She remembers her father sitting her down and playing the song – an old cowpoke tune given the blues treatment by the Doors’ keyboardist – through his loud shelf-built speakers on a rainswept Saturday morning.) The track that follows, “Rhapsody,” moves from googly, swirly video game noise to a long-form slow burn. “Love Me Tonight” uses deft chromatic displacements to animate a vocal line that pushes into the ether atop thundering percussion. The song is a protracted mixed metaphor: Her love grows thinner, her heart races as her lover’s breathing slows. The hook jumps out of the speakers as the tempo shifts. “It’s raining, it’s pouring,” she croons.
The final track, “Underwater Blood,” musically translates the immaterial sheen of crimson sunlight. Here and elsewhere on her album, Chalmers crosses the divide between the synthetic, machine music, and the synaesthetic as the blending of sensations.
Simon Morrison is a music historian specializing in 20th-century music. He is the author of Bolshoi Confidential (2016) and Lina and Serge (2013). The latter was featured on BBC Radio 4 (as “Book of the Week”), BBC World News (TV), and WYNC. He was written the New York Times, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, the TLS, and Time.