Reviewed by: Ziggy Merritt
“Put on your X Ray specs because my LP’s about to come straight at you.” I recently reread these fateful words back to myself from an interview with synthpop darling and Toronto-born Joanie Wolkoff, though most might recognize her by just the surname. Way back in August, I had the opportunity to interview the pioneering mononym on her then-upcoming release of the scintillating Talismans EP. Alongside friend and producer Icarus Moth, the five tracks that made up that same EP offered up not only a promising debut but high expectations for whatever might follow. Close to eight months after we last left our intrepid young heroine, Wolkoff has followed up on that quote and those same expectations with a string of singles all leading to the release of her first full-length, Without Shame. Very much a successor to the manifold textures of her debut, Without Shame, at its most elemental base, embodies the surreal storytelling and pop aspirations of a The Dreaming-era Kate Bush with the forward-thinking synth stylistics of Gary Numan. In fairness that pedigree of descriptiveness affords little justice to the diversity of sound present on the album. But that’s a good thing.
For one there’s nothing quite like Wolkoff out there. Combining a flair for the dramatic and the odd predilection for synthesized medieval arrangements, much of her prior output has consistently searched for new terrain in an already crowded field. It’s something to experiment with eclectic sounds, but an entirely different beast is called for to make those sounds pop. With tracks such as her first single from the album, “Homecoming” you get a sense of excited urgency, that something marvelous is about to happen and you’re there at the front of the line to experience it firsthand. The lion’s share of Without Shame has much of the same effect, following up on the tactics that made its sister EP a joy to listen to.
More on the point, with “Homecoming” there’s a sophistication within that presents itself in a golden ratio of vocals, background, and lyricism. Wolkoff’s own expressive voice balances against layers of percussive synth and a refrain brimming with hope and confidence: “This is the start of it, this is the great escape, this is the homecoming.” The prelude and hurried pace give the track an added sense of renewal and rebirth and that same sense is well-informed by the lyrics throughout. In the case of “While You Still Can” there’s an ever-present desire to escape from a life of complacency and heartache: “Get away, start over while you still can/Anyway, some things just can’t go as planned/Come away, I’ve got your back take a stand/Get away, start over I’ll be your man.” Brought up against a background of upbeat, even summery synthpop it’s difficult to deny Wolkoff’s persistent call to escape from the threads of poison in our lives and just live in the moment.
Tracks like the frenetic “Be Free” only reinforce this notion of unrestricted freedom. Here the addictive breakdown might be best described as an unhinged xylophone, deconstructed and bubbling with more of the same urgency that Wolkoff has imbued throughout. By the time “Feels Like” closes out the all-too-brief length of the album, that liberation has turned into longing as she sings “I’m still in love, I’m still right here.” It comes in as one of Without Shame’s calmer tracks, finding Wolkoff no longer complacent but settled in a life carved out for herself and whoever is willing enough to share the experience of a life worth living.
It’s fair to classify the whole of Without Shame, as something of an orchestral epic, utilizing sounds seemingly pulled from distant lands to give some extra punch to Wolkoff’s wonderland of metaphors. The best of these are pulled from “King’s Highway” with blades “forged by sacred flame” and “cascades of bulletproof tears” giving Wolkoff’s journey of self-discovery a tinge of high-fantasy. Whether through the dynamic electronic production via Icarus Moth or Wolkoff’s own surreal lyricism, Without Shame’s strength lies in its resolute refusal to leave your brain long after you’ve pressed play.