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L’Rain: Fatigue Album Review | Pitchfork

On her piercing self-titled 2017 debut as L’Rain, Brooklyn artist Taja Cheek sifted through the aftermath of her mother’s death with roaming sensitivity. Intimate field recordings, tape loops, and fragmented harmonies resembled loose sketches, yet L’Rain’s scattered structure framed an astounding, up-close document of grief. Fatigue, Cheek’s second album, once again looks inward, but this time allows more light into the corners. It’s a graceful record whose wearied landscapes of synth, air horn, strings, and saxophone distill a suite of low moods—depression, regret, and fear—into resilience and hope.

“What have you done to change?” demands Buffalo alt-rock artist Quinton Brock on Fatigue’s blaring opener, “Fly, Die,” a question that weighed heavily as Cheek put this music together. The album’s nonlinear framework replicates the elliptical way the mind works through intense emotions, twisting in different formations until it fractures into a breakthrough. Some of these diffuse songs evolved out of voice memos Cheek made for herself or in collaboration with others, but while her music can be intentionally illegible, it’s never unapproachable. Fatigue’s swirling blend of orchestral groans and human whispers evoke a state of subconscious drift where self-growth is nurtured in real time. It’s a way of taking stock of the bruises of life.

Cheek and co-producer Andrew Lappin’s work is painterly and methodical, daubing vocal loops over clattering percussion, sweeping strings, and resonant synths to create a shapeshifting strain of experimental pop. On the shattering standout “Blame Me,” she sings in a nimble voice over fingerpicked guitar: “You were wasting away, my god/I’m making my way down south.” Jon Bap and Anna Wise’s background vocals form an armature of strength as Cheek’s words grow more woeful: “Fought my demons until you were old—maybe ’cause you love me/Thinking ’bout it lately: future poison-blooded little babies.” Wherever Cheek goes on Fatigue, the ghosts of regret and trauma follow closely behind, an emotional state that colors the album in foreboding shades even as she creates space to recover and improve.

Like L’Rain, Fatigue is marbled with personal recordings: Dishes being washed in the sink beneath a piano melody on “Need Be,” a voicemail from her mother buried in “Blame Me.” The clips imbue the music with fleeting traces of closeness and familiarity. Cheek approaches them from a distance, recontextualizing some of the most heartfelt or difficult moments of her life in song. The mercurial, six-minute highlight “Find It” begins downcast, with a metronomic synth loop and the repeated mantra, “Make a way out of no way.” Screams echo through the sluggish beat as coming through a wall; the dust settles on an organist and singer performing the gospel song “I Won’t Complain,” recorded at the funeral of a family friend. Cheek intones over it until the song crests in a rapturous, overwhelming finale, with no less than 13 musicians contributing to the commotion. It’s easily the most poignant song she has ever made, a deeply felt, Biblically minded portrait of forging a path out of darkness. Yet the journey has room for lightness and humor, too, like the “oops” that slips into the end of “Walk Through” or the wacky vocal affect of a former roommate on “Love Her.” On the brief “Black Clap” and the rhythmic, low-lit “Suck Teeth,” Cheek incorporates the percussive sounds of a handclap game she made up with multi-instrumentalist Ben Chapoteau-Katz, a way to pay tribute to the joyful sound of childhood hand games played by Black girls.

Cheek upends expectations in more direct pop and dance traditions, too. On “Two Face,” a roving piano line and stuttering samples melt into a soulful, psychedelic throb as she ruminates on a failed friendship. “I can’t build no new nothing no new life no new nothing for me,” she trills in a singsong cadence, the words bouncing over oscillated coos. The lyrics on the tense “Kill Self” are even more unforgiving: “Did you see me chew myself out?” she asks, voice rippling in a cascade over shuffling percussion. “Hear the gnawing?” At once the album’s darkest and most propulsive moment, “Kill Self” eventually assumes a seething dancefloor pulse, bending skillfully toward structure without abandoning Cheek’s wandering impulses.

Fatigue ends with the beatific “Take Two,” a spare reconfiguration of “Bat” from L’Rain. She repurposes the song in a similar way to her field recordings, as raw material to mold into an unfamiliar shape. Stripped bare of percussion and transformed into an airy, droning spiritual, Cheek’s voice unfurls in billowy, Auto-Tuned tones as she repeats the words, “I am not prepared for what is going to happen to me.” In her skyward voice, the sentiment is more life-affirming than terrifying, suggestive of infinite possibilities. There is no fixed road toward healing, Fatigue reassures us; there is only the way forward.


Buy: Rough Trade

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