For an artist whose work spans the unusual balance between exuberance and introspection, it’s somewhat surprising that Sister Sai decided to shift the balance so far towards introspection on Extempore. At first listen, I admit I thought it was missing the spark which had propelled 2016’s Inertia and her most recent single “Cham Cham,” but Saira Raza’s decision to find pause among the more placid backwaters of her winding musical journey retains the charm of her earlier songwriting.
Much like inspecting a few frames of a film, Extempore gives more insight to Raza’s methodology than her philosophy. Usually her music pulses with vivacious energy, but the record manifests a more subdued aural palette. Yet if Extempore lacks the colorful tones and cacophonous outbursts of previous material, Raza makes up for it with meditative consistency. The definition of extempore reflects the spontaneous nature of the album, but though she may beam the melodies straight from her subconscious to her cello, the album represents a mindfulness which has become second nature to Raza.
Extempore was designed to mirror one of her typical solo live sets, and though she is able to capture a certain level of intimacy, it’s easy to understand how this collection of songs would be even more powerful if the listener was in the physical presence of her cello mastery, if only to glimpse the tactile connection between bow and string. Throughout the album she loops and chops tracks to the point of excess before reigning them back to the realm of quiet insistence. This is especially apparent in the haunting pulse of “Deep Water” which Raza follows with the driving warble of “Wanderer.” Neither of the these songs brim with the same warmth of previous work, but they focus the listener’s attention and coax us toward understanding as Raza re-molds our conceptions of cello traditions.
Sister Sai’s ability to write and perform with a wide variety of instruments has allowed her to continually grow and evolve as a musician, but the striking simplicity of Extempore isn’t a step backwards as much as an opportunity for Raza to return her focus to her first love. The cello may not be the source of her creativity, but it’s a conduit for her most intimate and resourceful work. Even though she challenges the listener with warped tones and distorted melodies, it’s obvious that Raza is writing from a place of ease and comfort rather than the experimental fringes she explored in the past. As a result, the genius of Extempore can’t be reduced to its simplicity, rather it must be tied to Raza’s ability to coax the wildest, most alien responses from her cello while creating music which is equally intense and inviting.
Sister Sai will perform on Saturday, April 22 at the Mammal Gallery in support of Karima Walker and nerdkween. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $5. Safe space.