A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing is Tenci’s second album, coming after their 2020 debut My Heart Is An Open Field, which introduced Jess Shoman’s music explorations to the world. Shoman admits that their first album dealt with letting go of painful life experiences, resulting in emptiness. In this recent collection of wiser years and distance from that former grief, Tenci carries an opposite feeling, a celebration of self-rejuvenation. A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing, shows Shoman steering their inventive music further and wilder, spilling over with 12 fable-like songs.
In a combination of milk, coins, glass, water, and light, each song forms a spell to “fill my heart back up,” Shoman says, “by reframing complex feelings by turning my head sideways and seeing them in a different way.” The album becomes a gathering and collection of well-like vessels – cups, puddles, fists – to hold tight to this love and newfound joy.
From the close-knit Chicago scene, Shoman is joined by Curtis Oren on saxophone and guitar, Izzy Reidy on bass (Izzy True), and Joseph Farago on drums (Joey Nebulous). In the years following their debut album, the band played shows all over the country before regrouping in Chicago to record A Swollen River with engineer, Abby Black (the album was also mixed by Melina Duterte, better known as Jay Som). While the themes of Tenci shuffle around a serious pool of thought, trying to understand life’s calamities, their live sets often feature an ample amount of goofy light-heartedness. Their playful interplay of loose drums and bass, huffing sax, and vocal waterfalls leave us warmer than before. The songs on A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing weave together like twigs to create that fire, a burning message to keep going.
The album begins with “Shapeshifter,” which Shoman says is about “piecing yourself together, shape-shifting into someone new,” and finding power in this new form. Setting the tone for the rest of the record, the brief song appears like a glimmering poem in darkness, unveiling an undeniable newness to their sound. “I’m a diamond ring / in a thick lagoon / Butterfly with clay-sewn wings,” sings Shoman. Like the transformation Shoman sings of, the track grows and morphs with stacked guitars and the harmonies of bandmates’ voices.
Tenci’s sonic evolution is further reinforced by the upbeat immediacy of “Vanishing Coin.” Shoman’s soft and trilling vocals fuel the song’s imagery as a friendship vanishes and another well appears, as a wish from a coin tossed into that well never comes to fruition. “Two Cups” continues this interplay between folk and rock genres, as a tough and sweet guitar solo converses, “I won’t wait,” fizzling towards freedom. Unlike a public fountain, a personal cup can be filled on your own terms towards abundance.
Tenci’s songs on this album often appear simplistic at first, then split off to unruly places of boiling self-recognition. On “Sour Cherries,” the band starts simple and slow, introducing the brutal fruit of love and the theme of wanting excess: “don’t you think you’ve had enough?” As Tenci gets deeper and huskier, they dip into one of the album’s most exciting and unexpected sections.
Shoman explains the idea behind “The Ball Spins” as “watching the ball spin – as in the world – but also as mundane as a ball on the ground. The world burns with so much sadness and destruction and I am witnessing it in a very desensitized way.” Living during an ongoing pandemic, dangerous nationalism, and climate change, to name a few, can feel so painful, it’s numbing. Tenci attempts to create art out of that metaphorical car on fire outside. Instead of disassociating, Shoman hopes to find commonality in communal care.
Just as the band name Tenci comes from Shoman’s grandmother Hortencia, the legacy of family is woven into the album. “Swallow Me Whole, Blue” comes from Shoman’s mother’s memory of her childhood dog, Blue, who was poisoned by the neighborhood kids: “They threw a poison bone / it cast a spell on you.” Perhaps Shoman’s longing to protect and know Blue is the same longing to protect their family’s memories. The album closes with “Memories”: in a bare folk song, their guitar, and their memories, echoed by the audio of an old family video. The voices of parents, grandparents, and children filter in and out, fuzzy against the assertion of a “crystal clear picture.” “Memories” captures the feeling of “knowing that at the end of your life, you will have your memories to fill your heart,” Shoman says.
Tenci has traveled through a spout that leads to a restorative lake, finding a new place of compositional and lyrical complexity on A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing. All of this fullness bursts forth from words and ideas jotted in Shoman’s journal. The notebook’s cover is made from a repurposed children’s book titled “Great Big Elephant.” Shoman’s own writing often feels like a nursery rhyme, a naming of animals and clowns under your bed, a recipe for understanding life, and hopefully, each other.