The songs on the second album by Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl feature improvisation, but as compositions they feel a great deal closer to art songs or new music than anything within arm’s length of jazz. That’s not a bad thing, especially since the first voice heard on Artlessly Falling belongs to art rock’s grand elder statesman Robert Wyatt. With his high, wispy voice continuing to captivate at age 75, he appears on three of the eight compositions, whose lyrics (all penned by Halvorson) were written in eight different poetic forms. Code Girl vocalist Amirtha Kidambi joins him on “Walls and Roses” and handles the other five herself, in spellbinding harmony on a few with tenor saxophonist María Grand. When Grand isn’t singing, she makes an equally eerie blend with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, who fills the spot occupied by Ambrose Akinmusire on the group’s previous album.
The poetic forms and their vocal execution—which sometimes stretches syllables to operatic lengths—make the accompanying lyric book a mandatory, and engrossing, part of the listening experience. While some songs appear to contain some abstract political commentary, “Last-Minute Smears” doesn’t hold back, with lyrics based on fragments of Brett Kavanaugh’s Congressional testimony. Halvorson intersperses her signature bent-note sound with flashes of distorted power chords and clean picking. All comes to a head in the closing title track, which begins with just vocals and guitar, then builds until the sextet creates a free-falling squall that still manages to maintain a harmonic structure beneath Kidambi’s vocals. Rounded out by Halvorson’s Thumbscrew bandmates, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Code Girl offers a challenging listen, but one that rewards close examination.