“Rest me in a forest, overgrown/Until I am free of all that I’ve known,” RosaLI sings on No Medium’s opening song “Mouth”. Her voice sounds like it’s floating. The latest album by RosaLI, aka Philadelphia musician Rosali Middleman, No Medium ultimately feels like a much more confident record than her previous effort, Trouble Anyway. The lyrics feel more thought out and the sound is larger, grander than before. Tracks like “Bones” and shuffling torch song “If Not For Now” stake an easy claim for the artist as one of the best singer-songwriters currently working.
Backed by musicians from the David Nance Group and Philly rockers The War on Drugs, No Medium was made in the spirit of restless collaboration, but the songs were mainly written by Middleman while visiting South Carolina on a retreat in 2019. Like many great albums, No Medium is the sound of someone finding personal liberation through seclusion, contemplating a better way to live. The abstract, often impressionistic lyrics alternate between the exorcism of a relationship that still has a hold on the singer (“What your love does to me/I’ll be the fool you set free”) and reflecting on past sins to find a better way forward. Regretful rocker “Poured Over Ice” for example addresses an old lover from the viewpoint of a hungover ex: “Lately I do not remember you/Quite as well as I once was able to/Feeling blind behind my eyes/Blend up my brain and pour it over ice.” She’s trying to make her apologies but that mixes with new interest as well. In the songs of RosaLI, desire and loss reluctantly become one and the same.
This is enhanced by the yearning, intoxicating country-rock behind the lyrics. No Medium feels at times like an artist approaching Gram Parsons’ concept of Great American Music with decades of new perspective. The result is not as raw as Long Hots, one of Middleman’s more raucous projects, and far less experimental than the instrumental guitar group Wandering Shade, but the songs use abstraction and noise as weapons, used only when necessary to enhance a greater emotion or a chord. “Mouth” for instance rides a downstroke and hi-hat country beat to impressionistic words that wish they were not so confessional: “Here is a mouth, saying your name/Come in closer, and I’ll say it again/Wish I were better at hiding my hand/Want to protect the feeling before it begins.” (The banjos that seep into the song shouldn’t belong there but somehow they do.)
The self-deprecation of Jenny Lewis or the likes of Aimee Mann is present here, but it’s as if RosaLI breaks through the doubt in order to get through to the former flame often addressed. It’s only then that she can find a way forward, to the mysticism and spiritual peace she clearly seeks. Or is it self-destruction? On the last song, “Tender Heart”, RosaLI reaches higher registers describing her way of being, “The craters in me/they form and recede/through my heart.” It’s a difficult, passionate existence, but she will make the best of it. Middleman said of her music that “I’m constantly working on being fearless in my work, which means showing the rough side, the mistakes along with the triumphs.” No Medium is a triumph in and of itself exactly because each track reveals the imperfect and rough as something quite beautiful. It’s one of the best albums of the year so far.
Photo by: Kristie Krause