Great music is arguably the result of one or two central egos in conflict with two or more figures trying not to let that ego consume the whole of the group. Smashing Pumpkins were brilliant in their original incarnation, though once fewer original members were around to speak up against Billy Corgan, the music became mediocre and eventually embarrassing. Or how about the Fall? The Brix years were undoubtedly among their best, but her rocky marriage with Mark E. Smith may have played some part into what created the tension that tightened up their sound. They did, after all, record countless forgettable records thereafter and have only recently begun to resurface to their previous level of greatness.
But if songwriters are given the opportunity to breathe, each one allotted their own space for creating something of their own, can the end result be as good as that which is created from such tension? Illumina answers that question with their debut, Nightlight. And the answer is yes. The New York and Pennsylvania-based Illumina has three central songwriters — Jen Appel, Marc Goodman and Minna Choi — each with their own distinct voice. In terms of sheer numbers, Goodman is the one doing the bulk of the writing, though quantity doesn’t equal quality, and in the latter department, he is equally matched by his bandmates.
What these songwriters do share, however, is a penchant for darker, minor-key melodies and sounds, betraying what their name may say about them. Appel’s “Not Really” is a compelling album opener, as a distorted riff teases the listener into believing the song is about to explode, though in actuality, psychedelic, ambient textures bleed slowly into the song’s fabric while Jen’s lovely vocals float atop. Conversely, the next song of hers on the record, “Parts,” is significantly louder and more straightforward. The subtler “You Used to Have Mileage” may be her best, however, for simply being the prettiest of her contributions here, particularly during the chorus, when all instruments, save for a flute, eerily drop out of the mix.
Minna Choi’s contributions are fewest in number, but no less forgettable. “Lullaby” is haunting and sweet as her childlike voice is barely audible over droning organ chords. “We’re in Love Again” is equally dense in organ and bare in arrangement, though Choi is augmented this time around by a drum machine. Her best moment is the countrypolitan waltz of “The New Apology” that not only shows off her songwriting strengths, but the strengths of the band as a whole. Every instrument is layered gently and delicately, while every note seems to fall into place at just the right time.
As I said before, Marc Goodman is responsible for half of the material on Nightlight, and many of his contributions are closest the album comes to straightforward rock music. That doesn’t mean they are, but comparatively, they come across as such. “Acceptance as a Gift” actually rocks out beneath the effects-laden vocals and “In Effigy” shares sonic similarities to Elliott Smith’s more heavily produced tracks. But Goodman has his moments of quietude as well, like the beautiful but brief “Acceptance” and the graceful, though slightly louder “Thoughtful Letters.”
Having three separate songwriters could potentially create a disjointed and incoherent album, but thankfully Illumina’s Nightlight is a surprisingly cohesive listen. While each writer has his or her own voice, it’s the dynamic of the band that keeps it all together, allowing for seamless transitions between songs. Illumina creates stunning music without the ego, the grace and beauty of each song held up by each individual voice.
Ida – Heart Like a River
Matt Pond PA – Measure
The Winter Blanket – Prescription Perils
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.