Spellling’s Tia Cabral first introduced herself via a series of hauntingly sparse recordings, building a colorfully mystical bedroom-goth sound of an array of synthesizers and a boundless imagination. At her darkest she invoked the proto-industrial minimal synth sounds of early 4AD and Mute Records releases, but when spiraling outside of these depths, Cabral captured something more fantastical and carnivalesque. The square footage of her workspace surely wasn’t enough contain the whole of the worlds she’d seem to to conjure.
“Little Deer,” the first single from Cabral’s third album The Turning Wheel, proves what she’s capable of with a lot more room to stretch out and build upon the already captivating foundation she’s established. Dramatic piano chords ring out against a cinematic array of strings, with twinkly synths climbing toward starlight. It’s a stunner from the outset, but by the chorus it becomes truly breathtaking, Cabral introducing the ideas of inextricable cycles of existence and a yin-and-yang duality—life and death, strength and vulnerability, wisdom and uncertainty—mirrored by an earworm trumpet: “Dead of winter, dead of eve/Little deer will marry me/Tender lovers of the earth/Turn us back into the dirt.” Cabral has cited Minnie Riperton, The Jackson Five and Kate Bush as some of the artists that informed the direction she took in crafting the album, and on “Little Deer,” as she does throughout The Turning Wheel, she takes those maximalist inspirations farther than ever before.
In fact, the entire first half of The Turning Wheel (titled “Above”) showcases a different side of Spellling than she’s ever fully explored in the studio before, and that includes inviting 31 guest musicians to help build her sound into a soaring orchestral-pop powerhouse. “Always” and the title track are gorgeously arranged pop gems that invoke Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s as much as they do the kind of cinematic soul that Cabral had in her headphones during the making of the album, while “Awaken” crashes with booming timpani and even a bell(!), holding absolutely nothing back as she pleads, “Let your heart transform!” It’s at once over the top and masterfully executed, with only brief moments of darkwave mystique bridging Cabral’s art-pop heroism.
It’s in the second half (“Below”) where The Turning Wheel newly invokes to the gloomier elements of Spellling’s sound, the darker underside to the ideas introduced throughout the album’s first half. Echoes of Kate Bush aside, it’s not as strictly bound by narrative concept as something like The Ninth Wave. Yet the drama is just as high, Cabral introducing the mesmerizing, seven-minute “Boys From School” by singing, “Take me to the lord before the boredom takes me over.” It’s teen angst as darkwave opera, the complete production essentially like a suite rather than a simple pop song, climaxing in its middle section with a series of soaring guitar riffs. “Queen of Wands” is the moment that most resembles the dramatic, gothic throb of 2019’s Mazy Fly, but even this feels several orders of magnitude larger as Cabral asks, “Are you afraid of the power?”
The witchy atmospherics and funhouse detours of Spellling’s previous two records remain essential aspects to The Turning Wheel, but with more resources at her disposal, Cabral is able to shine a light on a wider expanse of that spectrum. A bright pop anthem such as “Little Deer” carries with it some sinister philosophical musings, just as an internal debate over the commodification of art on “Revolution” (“spent all my wishes/damn it, I’m trying to stay alive“) can manage to sound like a triumph rather than defeat. Everything about The Turning Wheel is bigger, from the intricate nature of its arrangements to the questions it asks. It’s still recognizably Spellling, but the circumference of the world she’s created now seems immeasurable.
Label: Sacred Bones
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.