You don’t get a MacArthur “genius” grant just for thinking big; you get one because your big ideas work extraordinarily well. Mary Halvorson, who was awarded the grant last year, has earned hers by moving from strength to strength. Ever since she began recording in the mid-2000s, she’s projected a strikingly personal voice on the electric guitar; you only need to hear a few seconds of her fastidious fingering and extravagant pitch bends to know it’s her. And while Halvorson’s groups generously showcase the idiosyncratic skills of her bandmates—among them saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn—her compositional style, with its intricate melodies and sudden tempo changes, is as distinctive as her playing.
Halvorson has upped her game again with her latest ensemble, Code Girl. Though she’s cowritten lyrics before, in the group People and in her duo with Jessica Pavone, this is the first time she’s been solely responsible for them. On the project’s self-titled 2018 debut, the elusive imagery of her lyrics turned steely and supple when sung by Amirtha Kidambi, and her writing for the band’s new Artlessly Falling is even more ambitious. Each song follows the rules of a different poetic form; “Muzzling Unwashed” uses the repeating lines of a villanelle to consider how coverings can entice and repel, and the found poem of “Last-Minute Smears” extracts nauseating substance from the verbal smokescreen of Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony before Congress. Halvorson’s bands tend to get bigger with time, and Code Girl is no exception. Kidambi returns from the first record, as do drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek (both of whom play with Halvorson in the collective trio Thumbscrew). Saxophonist and vocalist María Grand, a new member for this record, adds rich complexity to the arrangements, singing counterpoint and harmony with Kidambi as well as braiding horn lines with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill. And the great English singer Robert Wyatt, whose solo albums were a huge influence on Halvorson, has come out of retirement to add his trademark fragile dignity to three songs. v