One of the first things you see when you visit Half Waif’s Bandcamp page is a bio that lists off Nandi Rose Plunkett’s heritage. Other musicians mention past projects or genre tags or other sonic identifiers, but Plunkett seems to want to clarify that her project Half Waif is as much a cultural mish mash as it is a musical one, her Swiss DNA there in the snowy electronics, her vocals a combination of a nasally Indian inflection and Irish ballad harmonies, the American in her clear in the very way all that heritage collides and forms something distinct and new. The 21st Century has provided no shortage of artists forcing mergers of disparate scenes and timbres, true, but Half Waif’s Kotekan is more than global cherry picking, it’s Plunkett’s ancestry come to vivid musical life.
Kotekan itself refers to a style of playing gamelan instruments, specifically the interlocking parts that give the instrument and the music associated with them their characteristic flurry of melodic activity. “The Operator,” which opens up the album, is perhaps the clearest connection of the title to Half Waif’s music, featuring a swift, breathless vocal melody set against jarringly minimal synth piano chords. The song starts with its chorus, and Plunkett only pauses when the synth piano switches up an octave for the first time, providing an odd but magnetic hook within the melody. Repeating the phrase “Call me if you can/Tell me I’m the operator” like a magical incantation run through a Laurie Anderson-style vocal effect, Plunkett is hypnotic, only opening the full range of her voice in the song’s final bridge.
There are dark elements to Kotekan, though, and they get clearer towards the end of the album. Of these, “All My Armor” stands out as perhaps the best, mixing a macabre electric piano line with a showcase of the lower register of Plunkett’s vocal range and occasional, slightly atonal chord stabs. The chorus forgoes a traditional approach to lyrics, instead zooming in on the phrase “Slowly starve me out,” with “out” given operatic emphasis before Plunkett speak-sings the bridge and the song works its way back to its ghostly verse and completes the cycle with a new emphasis on a new word. The final two songs, “Harvest” and “And Then They Grow,” both remove most of the supporting instrumentation that surrounds Plunkett on the rest of the album, leaving just her voice and reverb drenched piano, which is a sharp but nonetheless intriguing contrast to the eclecticism of the earlier tracks. Plunkett is more than capable of filling the void with more atmospheric harmonies and divergent melodic paths, but that said, her talents as an arranger and Devin Greenwood’s skills as a producer make it hard not to miss the constant instrumental cross pollination of songs like “The Operator.”
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover