Multi-instrumentalist, composer, performer and curator L’Rain (Taja Cheek) returns with her third album I Killed Your Dog. Over-writing themes of grief and identity that informed her previous work, I Killed Your Dog considers what it means to hurt the people you love the most. Multi-layered in subject and form, L’Rain’s sonic explorations interrogate instead how multiplicities of emotion and experience intersect with identity. The experimental and the hyper-commercial; the expectation and the reality; the hope and the despair. “I’m envisioning a world of contradictions, as always,” Cheek explains. “Sensual, maybe even sexy, but terrifying, and strange.” Written amidst heartbreaks from the perspective of an earned maturity, I Killed Your Dog takes the sonic world laid out by L’Rain in 2021’s album Fatigue on a compelling new trajectory.
Described by Cheek as an “anti-break-up” record, I Killed Your Dog takes the universal pop theme of love as its starting point – bold, bratty and even a touch diabolical – and inspects it through the form of a conversation with her younger self, untangling her relationship with femininity and the formal musical conventions that others have come to expect of her.
Alongside long-time collaborators Andrew Lappin and Ben Chapoteau-Katz, Cheek has developed L’Rain into a shape-shifting entity that blurs the distinction between band and individual. Beginning as an abstract meditation on grief, Cheek traces the origins of L’Rain to the period which followed the dissolution of her vibrant DIY musical community in early 2010s NYC and the passing of her mother, Lorraine. The name L’Rain was conceived as both a tribute to her mother and her own gregarious alter ego L’ (lah-postrophe), and one which she subsequently tattooed onto her arm.
Critically acclaimed by NPR, named album of the year in The Wire magazine and #2 in Pitchfork’s best albums of 2021, Fatigue propelled L’Rain towards a new audience, while further cementing her place within experimental and art institutional spaces. And yet, equally inspired by gospel and ‘90s R&B, and touring with Black Midi and Animal Collective, Cheek is conscious of not allowing this narrative to dominate.
As with Fatigue, the cast of I Killed Your Dog’s world is supremely varied – taking in theoretical physicists, subverting Baroque compositional tropes and the dad rock nostalgia of The Strokes, the words of choreographer Bill T. Jones, tricks of commercial advertising and voice note wisdoms of people she holds close. I Killed Your Dog is a crystallization of L’Rain’s tactile approach to song-writing. The album is also an implicit interrogation of the electric dreams and failures of early synthesizers, toying openly with rock music tropes, the lineage of folk as Black music in America, and Cheek’s own background playing in experimental guitar bands.
A self-confessed dog lover, the title track “I Killed Your Dog” explores the inherent contradiction in hurting those closest to you, embedded in a structure that references both Joan Baez and J.S. Bach. “It’s bit of aggro and contrarian, a bit of a fuck you to myself, attention grabbing and flashy, and also deeply confusing; Is the title an act of maliciousness and revenge or an expression of remorse and regret?” Cheek asks.
That sense of unease also permeates “Pet Rock” – a warped, guitar-driven indie tearjerker that treads a line between irony and sincerity, challenging the listener to confound their expectations. Recording her vocals in a state of physical frenzy, Cheek first embodies and then dismantles the rock clichés she is confronted with.
It’s a theme picked up on “5 to 8 Hours a Day (WWwaG)”, itself pushing back against the culture of productivity, instrumental practice and the often-sloppy interpretations of her sound as “jazz-influenced”. Instead, it’s folk and experimental rock as inherently Black music that emerge as touchpoints, subverting the presence of steel guitar and Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet on the track.
“I wonder how long it takes to forget someone you’re close to?” writes Cheek of “r(EMOTE)”, her layered vocals soaring over dramatic and fractured synth swells. “Maybe one day”, she repeats like a mantra as ‘r(EMOTE)’ opens out towards a pulsing post-rock crescendo.
The album’s denouement “New Year’s UnResolution” is perhaps its most overtly pop-influenced, a shimmering personal excavation of the end of a relationship, written at different moments in time to trace the changing intensity of intimacy as it flees in the rear-view mirror.
Threaded with interludes – from personal recordings to self-made fake television commercials – the collage approach L’Rain first employed on her self-titled debut album, ties in references to previous work. Here “Knead Bee ” re-envisions Fatigue’s “Need Be” as a conversation with her younger self: “I imagined being a young girl wondering what would come of her life, being scared for the future and not knowing how it all would unfold. And I respond basically like, ‘Oh girl, you’re fine. You’ll be okay.’”
While the specifics may be hidden from view, I Killed Your Dog is an invitation to experience the big emotions of life through L’Rain’s prismatic lens. Pieced together like snippets of found sound, L’Rain is edging towards a practice that resists disciplinary categorization and instead reflects the messiness of the self in all its fullness.
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