A well is a stone-encircled place of depth, keeping an abundance of water for survival. “Well” is also a phrase for pause, for transition in language. Our tears can well up and bubble over. To define ourselves as “well” is the most basic term of goodness.
What’s on the other side of the well? Inside the tunnel of change, or this life, we can either feel intimidated by the darkness of uncertainty, or excited by the possibility of nourishment. Songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Jess Shoman wonders, “what the hell,” why don’t we go for the excess of love we deserve? Tenci’s album A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing becomes a gathering and collection of well-like vessels – cups, puddles, fists – to hold tight to this love, newfound joy.
A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing is Tenci’s second album, coming after their 2020 debut My Heart Is An Open Field, which introduced Jess Shoman’s experimentations to the world. With guidance of the push and pull of intuitive guitar and vocal edges, Tenci is a band that plays with time. Shoman admits that their first album dealt with letting go of painful life experiences, resulting in emptiness. In this recent collection of wiser years and distance from that former grief zone, Tenci carries an opposite feeling, a celebration of self-rejuvenation. A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing shows Shoman steering their inventive folk style further and wilder, spilling over with 12 fable-like songs. In a combination of milk, coins, glass, contained water, and light, each song forms a spell to “fill my heart back up,” Shoman says, “by reframing complex feelings by turning my head sideways and seeing them in a different way.”
From the close-knit Chicago scene, Shoman is joined by Curtis Oren on saxophone and guitar (Curt Oren), Izzy Reidy on bass (Izzy True), and Joseph Farago on drums (Joey Nebulous). In the past couple years, they’ve been playing shows together at home in Chicago, on their tours around the country, and recording this album with Abby Black, adding fuller instrumentation and natural harmony of friends. While the themes of Tenci shuffle around a serious pool of thought and trying to understand life’s wrongings, their live set often interludes with goofy light-heartedness. Anyone who knows the band members of Tenci knows they are the funniest people on earth. And their playful coordination and dynamics of loose drums and bass, huffing sax, and vocal waterfalls leaves us warmer than before. The songs on A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing bundle together like weavings of twigs to create that fire, a burning message to keep going and going.
The album begins with “Shapeshifter,” which Shoman says is about “piecing yourself together, shape-shifting into someone new,” and finding power in this new form. Setting the tone for the rest of the record, the brief tune appears like a glimmered poem in darkness: “I’m a diamond ring / in a thick lagoon / Butterfly with clay-sewn wings.” Tenci’s vibrations of sound envelope, stacking guitar harmonics and bandmate’s voices, the growth of the climb.
A newness in Tenci’s sound unveils in “Vanishing Coin” with upbeat immediacy, adding onto their unique changing rhythms. Shoman’s soft and trilling vocals fuel the song’s imagery as a friendship vanishes and another well appears. The wish from the tossed fountain coin never comes to fruition, as the instruments stab in and out, “a forgotten push pin.” “Two Cups” continues this threshold between the folk and rock genres, as a tough and sweet guitar solo converses, “I won’t wait,” fizzling towards freedom. Unlike a public fountain, a personal cup can be filled on your own terms towards abundance.
There’s a knowing of the interior and listening to that quiet self in the woozy arrangement. Tenci’s songs on A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing often appear simplistic at first, then split off to an unruly place of boiling self recognition. Snarled chorus and Oren’s saxophone swing in duet, placed on top of the song’s beginnings. In “Sour Cherries”, the band starts simple and slow, introducing the brutal fruit of love (“bruised melon”) and the theme of wanting excess: “don’t you think you’ve had enough?” As Tenci gets deeper and huskier (“into your marrow”), they dip away into one of the album’s most exciting and unexpected sections. With a new melody on the loose, the sax suctions the song’s landscape. Shoman’s voice sirens on “sour”, a splitting and dissolving saccharine disaster.
Like a magic trick, all of this fullness evolved from jotted writing in Shoman’s journal. The notebook’s cover is made from a repurposed children’s book titled “Great Big Elephant.” Shoman’s own writing often feels like a nursery rhyme, a naming of animals and clowns under your bed, a recipe for understanding life.
The intimacy in A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing can be vulnerable but subtle, like a whispered conversation between two new lovers costumed as a joke: “knock knock I’m the best you’ve ever had, I can’t believe you, is that sad?” As Shoman describes their out of body experience of going through monthly pain and depression, watching their soul from afar, the guitar dances and flakes around the song’s room, too. There’s a calm command of time passing, of knowing the body can be pinched and woken into new realities.
Shoman explains the song idea for “The Ball Spins” as “watching the ball spin as in the world, but also as mundane as a ball on the ground. The world burns with so much sadness and destruction and I am witnessing it in a very desensitized way.” Living during a time of an ongoing viral plague, dangerous nationalism, and climate change, to name a few, can feel so painful, it’s numbing. Tenci attempts to create art out of that metaphorical car on fire outside. Instead of disassociating, we can latch onto their minimalist song structure with cyclical words (“spin, break, safe, warm, closed”), repeated together like communal care.
Just as the band name Tenci comes from Shoman’s grandmother Hortencia, the legacy of family burns its importance in the album. “Swallow Me Whole, Blue” comes from their mom’s memory of her childhood dog, Blue, who was poisoned by the neighborhood kids: “they threw a poison bone / it cast a spell on you.” The family lore acts as a warning, or a warbling call to the dog ghost. Perhaps Shoman’s longing to protect and know Blue is the same longing to protect their family’s memories. The album ends here: in a bare folk song of Shoman, their guitar, and their memories, echoed by the audio of an old family video. The voices of parents, grandparents, and children filter in and out, fuzzy against the assertion of a “crystal clear picture.” “Memories” captures the feeling of “knowing that at the end of your life, you will have your memories to fill your heart,” Shoman says.
On their second album, Tenci has traveled to a deeper place of compositional and lyrical complexity, like a spout that leads to a restorative lake. A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing ends on the words “sweet relief” floating down the tunnel of the future.