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Sophia Kennedy's 'Monsters' Showcases The Method Of A Restless Experimenter

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Sophia Kennedy is a singer-songwriter and producer who was born in Baltimore and has lived for many years in Germany. As a student, her admiration for the independent director John Cassavetes led her to study filmmaking, but she soon became involved in the Hamburg music scene, making pop, dance and electronica music. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Kennedy's new album, called "Monsters," is a remarkably diverse collection of songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHESTNUT AVENUE")

SOPHIA KENNEDY: (Singing) Buildings are wide on this side of town. You've got the No. 1 room on the floor. The few in the hallway, they're talking 'bout business. She'll might be too late for the show (ph). Curtains are...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I usually try to begin these pieces by playing a bit of a song that gives you an idea of the typical sound and style of the artist I'm prepared to review. I find myself at something of a loss, however, when it comes to Sophia Kennedy. That's because on this new album, "Monsters," she sounds different on nearly every track. The song I played at the start, "Chesnut Avenue," features Kennedy in full-throated crooning mode. But contrast that now with one of the high points on this album, a song called I'm Looking Up. That's looking up as in heavenward. Kennedy uses a much more conversational approach here, singing while talking, chewing over grief, mourning and an intense curiosity about the possibility of an afterlife.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M LOOKING UP")

KENNEDY: (Singing) You're gone. That's no hallucination. I can't bear - I can't bare this nightmare. So real, like a deer - like a deer hitting the windshield. And I - I need a sign. Is there still someone with something somewhere? And I - I'm looking up.

TUCKER: Sophia Kennedy was raised in Baltimore, but moved some time ago to Germany, where she operates out of Hamburg. She's performed with other configurations of musicians, including as half of a duo called Shari Vari. She records for a label, Pampa Records, known mostly for house and techno music.

Her closest collaborator is the German producer Mense Reents, who produced her 2017 debut album and this new one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORANGE TIC TAC")

KENNEDY: (Singing) Bright epileptic tide lights, bright lights, fireflies. Apocalyptic-type lights, panoramic-wide side, highlight. Schizophrenic timeline, red sky, bad guy. Narcoleptic-dark times, manic pressure full time, headline.

TUCKER: That's "Orange Tic Tac," in which Kennedy gives herself over to a big thumping electronica beat, reciting lyrics that cluster one-syllable words containing long I sounds - tight lights, bright lights, for example, and wide side, highlight. But remember how I said she's different all the time? Compare what I just played to the composition that follows it on the album, "I Can See You." This is the song where everything Sophia Kennedy is trying to accomplish on "Monsters" comes together. It features a pulsing keyboard riff. Some loose clapping keeps the beat. Kennedy's voice is warm and confiding. On the rest of the material here, she can seem to be talking to herself. But on this one, she's talking to a lover, delighted to be listing all the ways in which they're alike and all the ways they're different. It also helps, of course, that she's come up with an irresistible chorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN SEE YOU")

KENNEDY: (Singing) I can see through the darkness. I can stand where it is steep. Feel a sadness coming along, and it's hanging over me. When the bells on the hill, they've stopped to ring and what once meant the world to us, now don't mean a thing. Are you fact? Are you fiction? You appear in many shapes. We'll both look the same once we lie in our graves. Whatever you have, I can possess, whether it's sweet or poisonous. Come rain or come shine, if I can't have you, I'll always be mine. I can see you.

TUCKER: "Monsters" is Kennedy's second solo album. I went back and listened to some of her pre-solo work, much of it more heavily dance music oriented, some of it sung in German. Her present method is to play various keyboards and flute herself and work with her producer to layer or distort her vocals and the mix of electronic and acoustic instruments. It's the method of a restless experimenter. Kennedy doesn't want to be pinned down, but I'd say the more she showcases her voice, the more people are going to want to hear what she has to say.

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Sophia Kennedy's new album called "Monsters."

After we take a short break, John Powers will review Rachel Cusk's new novel about art and artists. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEBO VALDES TRIO'S "PARE COCHERO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.