Written by: Dave Cantrell
There’s little more gratifying in this music-obsessed life than to witness the constantly arcing evolution of an artist’s work from project to project, album to album, the very force of their creative drive emerging from the once liminal into a light that becomes brighter and, frankly, more human at every turn. Naturally, for examples, we turn to the usuals, the Dylans the Jonis Tim Buckley et al but somehow it seems to have become a rarer instance since the seep of the digital life became a tidal wave we all surf every day, as if the distractions inherent have so effectively atomized our collective consciousness that any such prospects, feeding as they do on continuity of purpose, are too easily snuffed out in their infancy. But then, as if to offer an antidote to that sad diagnosis, there’s Jesse Ainslie, the singular talent behind new project WARKA whose debut, Master Chaynjis, arrived on the Baltimore-based ‘label that could’ Epifo in late October.
It was on that modest but plucky independent that Ainslie’s solo debut Only in the Dark appeared in 2018 following what might be seen as Ainslie’s woodshedding years which saw him juggling multiple session jobs while playing a crucial role in both the Castanets and Phosphorescent projects, and it was that release that landed on this writer’s desk those five years ago and commenced to turn him from a cuious listener to rabid fan in the span of forty-plus minutes and the words that poured out attested to said conversion with an unabashed fervor. What decades of personal experience suggested had little right to be expected in the wake of that feverish reaction, however, was that what seemed a veritably unfollowable record would in fact be damn near overshadowed by its successor. And yet, with this WARKA debut, here we are.
Immediately moving by virtue of little else – though there is plenty ‘else’ – than Ainslie’s powerfully plaintive voice, its rasp-edged eloquence of tone, first track “I’m In Love Again,” to put it starkly, simply descends, its deep resonance bringing that shiver of awe and emotion craved by anyone looking to be moved. Yes, for the sake of categorization one might reach for the tab marked ‘edgy modern rock Americana-style’ but it’s a very fair bet that a bewitched doubt will leave it abandoned in the air as waves of yearning soul layed out with a sure-handed Spectoresque wallop overtake the senses. Instead, need one need a label to attach, we can but suggest ‘eternal’ and leave it at that and, in fact, what’s really most advisable here is to hell with that label business altogether. Rather, just listen, swoon, repeat.
Quelle surprise, the next-up “Things Are Looking Up, pt.1,” its vocal melody instantly jukebox-ready, its rhythm track – not to mention that sinuous insistence of electric threading through it end to end – like some addictive beat thing hauled out of a 70s LA urban jungle, precise yet feral, the lyrics, a crucial Ainslie asset, that too-rarely finessed mix of the poignantly allegorical and poetically concise (sample stanza: when the rivers find their home / in the mighty sea // and your children hide their eyes / from your sad captivity), only seconds that shiver sentiment raised above. Two tracks in and you’re riveted, you won’t want to move until this record ends and even then you’ll have to physically resist the urge to go back in, start it all over again. Should you, despite that testimony, still need persuasion, further evidence abounds.
The classic romantic haunt that prefaces the heart of “I Tried to Act Surprised” seeds the ground for what grows into a five-and-a-half minute epic of sorrow and breaking beauty that stands up if barely against the gale of hurt bringing it to its knees. “We Got Lucky,” synth-flecked, slow-funked, finds itself collared by a nervous restraint that never quits feeling ready to break because life, after all, is this thinning coil being pulled ever-taut and ready to snap, the irony of the song’s title sitting just behind its veil smiling with that cynic’s knowingness we all of us know too well. Retaining that synth bass pulse but pumping it full of impetus with an undercurrent of obsession born of hope, “Love is Still Alive” would likely rank as this album’s anchor were it not for the fact the title track follows it and nearly swallows both it and “..Lucky” whole, integrating both those immediate predecessors’ mortal thrums into one singular jugular spell, the song unspooling like some slow-simmering, Memphis-fed myth of tension and love (that title “Master Chaynjis” by the way deriving – quite fittingly – from a phrase used by the title character in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker). Rather needless to say perhaps but it’s our longest outing here and yet sustains its power by an almost eerie steadiness, a calmness on the precipice of a ruined world, narrated as if by someone who’s just escaped the noose quietly taking note of the rope burns on their palms.
While all this may paint a grim picture – even the sprightly reprise “Things Are Looking Up, pt.2” with its flute-ish pop experimental flourishes, being lyrically verbatim, contains that ‘sad captivity’ line extracted above – the deft aesthetic trick at play here is that, beyond just the sheer bloody quality the songs, their near-Faulknerian heft, production-wise (Ainslie with Evan Bradford and Viking Moses‘ Brendon Messei), arrangements-wise and just the over-arching vibe of this album’s sound doesn’t simply ensure a pleasurable listen but rather overwhelms with its intrinsic, umm, mastery. Like any enduring record that enters the canon of such, Master Chaynjis benefits not just from those seven sharp empathic songs that will outlive us all but also how, as a piece, it exudes exactly that intuitively determined continuity of purpose mentioned up top that in turn, dear reader, can be reached for whenever you’re looking for the perfect, defining example of that aphorism ‘more than the sum of its parts.’
Easily among the best albums of 2023 – and quite arguably the best that this writer heard – in the end it doesn’t really matter that we didn’t get to publishing this review until the early weeks of 2024 because Master Chaynjis may well be a better, more accomplished record than anything we hear in the current year as well. Eternal, indeed.[Get Master Chaynjis here]