Every time I think I’ve got a good bead on Michael Beharie’s Promise, the next song comes along and I find I have to reassess, well, everything — and this, no matter how many times I’ve listened to it. (Which, for what it’s worth, is quite a few.) In the hands of a lesser artist, this uncertainty would probably make for a frustrating experience. But with Beharie — an acclaimed composer, improviser, and member of the Zs avant-garde collective — it’s never less than fascinating when the music is this rich and detailed.
It’s initially tempting to toss Promise into the catch-all that is “folk music” thanks to album opener “Red” with its plainspoken acoustic guitar and Beharie’s wisp of a voice. (Think In Gowan Ring’s B’ee more so than Nick Drake, if you will.) It even has a flute, for cryin’ out loud (courtesy of Laura Cox). When those flute sounds open up “Ghost” (Promise’s first single), it’s similarly tempting to think that it’ll be more of the same — only for the guitar to star pinwheeling around the song as Matt Mehlan’s shuffled drumming propels the whole affair forward. Cox’s flute is still present, its swooping and fluttering notes adding a lightness that pairs nicely with the bright tones of Beharie’s charango (a type of Peruvian lute).
The charango takes the lead on “Lolo,” striking up a sprightly tone that’s accentuated by piping synths and a strutting baseline. The resulting blend wouldn’t sound too far out of place on a Club 8 release, especially when the guitar comes swinging by for a dreamy, tropical solo. “Thakur” is the album’s most avant-garde moment, with Charlotte Mundy’s wordless vocals accompanied by building synths and, yep, more flute. Meanwhile, “August” weaves strands of spectral post-punk guitars in and amongst Cox’s flute, Beharie’s voice, and stuttering, Latin-inflected rhythms.
I’ve probably use the word “flute” in this review more than I have in the last 12 months’ worth of posts. Likewise, Promise contains more flute than any recording I can recall in recent memory. But that’s all part of the album’s charm. Thanks to its more eclectic instrumentation — e.g., Cox’s global array of flutes, the aforementioned charango — Promise offers up a fresh spin on the familiar. There are plenty of moments on Promise where I hear something that seems recognizable, but there’s just enough of a skew to make me think twice about that. It’s a delightful sense of disorientation.