by Luke Kubacki
J. Moriarty, an American artist living in Morocco, released his EP titled Baraka in the fall of 2018. The minimalist project rotates around the sound of a dulcimer guitar that he found abandoned in the corner of his apartment building called, logically, “Baraka.”
Listen to the EP while reading the text.
Besides those recognizable strums of the dulcimer, and the minimalistic production, the 7-track album does not pursue sonic or thematic consistency across its 19 minutes. Rather, the songs vacillate between tendencies in pursuit of his ultimate object of curiosity: the power of a moment. Whether in the quiet hesitation of “Full Moon,” the political ruminations of “VINE,” or the explicit lyricism of “Just for a Moment,” J. is interested in the consequences of decisions made, or not made, in a moment.
Baraka‘s first act, consisting of the first four songs, utilizes almost exclusively the dulcimer and vocal tracks to trace J.’s conflictual relationship with action — a conflict he then resolves in the final three songs that make up the project’s second act.
“Full Moon” sees J.’s vocals, embedded in a comforting melody, rhyme through two verses bookended by a slippery rift on the dulcimer strings. Except for the brief “Syringa,” “Full Moon” is the most stripped song on Baraka, but it carries most of the sentimental weight as J.’s layered voice—under the blue tint of moonlight—sings about the cost of hesitation—of lost moments.
Following the lost moments of “Full Moon,” “VINE” and “Syringa” explore misused moments. “VINE” follows the musical tradition of Eliot Smith’s sunnier days. With echoes of #MeToo commentary (“what can cross a line / everybody knows”), masculine self-validation (“tie a pseudo-tie / allegorical”), and the ever-present vine metaphor (straight/linear, natural, and yet fragile) “VINE” traces a fear that explains the hesitation in “Full Moon”.
“Syringa,” which directly follows “VINE,” illustrates the intimate (J.’s voice is the closest it will be on the entire project) deterioration of J.’s mindset, stuck between hesitation and fear of action.
In the final movement of the first act, the blue stillness of “Full Moon” reappears on “Heal Dream,” this time with a more complex color palate. In “Full Moon,” J. describes being frozen in hesitation. “Heal Dream,” however, captures the moment after action, when stillness overtakes a shaken scene.
J. is the disruption: his presence, his action, which he finds creating distance between himself and the Other, expertly reflected in the track’s production by Columbus, Ohio-based producer Maddy Ciampa as the vocals reach the listener over the same distance established by the lyrics. (Maddy Ciampa also produced “Full Moon”.)
“Brika Interluda” moves us from the first act and into the second, from conflict and into resolution, by introducing percussion and a louder vocalization, as if J. is stretching, breaking, moving, banging.
“Just for a Moment” brings elements of Americana to the table as J. moves towards resolution. In his most explicit lyricism, J. summarizes the conflict of the preceding act. After a musical, bridge-like breakdown, he returns once again to the simplicity of the dulcimer/vocal combination to offer himself a path forward. He calls for engagement with himself, for connection, and for, “whether or not it comes from the heart”, a firm grip on maturity, on wisdom.
J. wraps up the album with a cover of Bon Iver’s “Wolves,” which maintains the woodsy acoustics, but reimagines the tempo in swing-time. The effect is uplifting — an autumn rendition of a winter song — and after the atmosphere of the preceding album, J.’s musical tone seems to fit Vernon’s lyrics better than the original. Lyrically, it’s a perfect summation of J.’s eclectic conflict; musically, it’s a triumph that reimagines a classic song into a new emotional landscape. It is an olive branch that J. offers to himself, using the words and melody of his artistic ancestor to assure that what is lost need no longer be a burden.
Baraka: A Musical Project built around an Instrument
Baraka is an exercise in creative limitations — a musical project built not around an idea or a sound, but an instrument. Baraka is, in its simmering eclecticism, an honest, formless, cryptic shape—internal and external experiences overlaid on one another in color-coded garageband tracks.
It doesn’t flow, but neither does time, moments overlaid on one another. It tumbles, and so Baraka tumbles, somersaulting across an opaque landscape that is simultaneously intimate and unfamiliar, like a blessing.