Clara Engel
Where a City Once Drowned: The Bethlehem Tapes Vol. II

by Jim Di Gioia

August 14, 2019

Where a City Once Drowned is a journey worth taking due in large part to Clara Engel’s musical deftness as our guide.

“Let’s go for a walk/take my hand,” proposes songwriter Clara Engel on “Mayfly Day”, the opening composition of Where a City Once Drowned: The Bethlehem Tapes Vol. II. Without waiting for a reply, Engel heads off down forested trails to a place where “for now a bird is only a bird/and the dark clouds forming/are just a summer storm.” Though it sounds daunting and a touch dangerous, Where a City Once Drowned is a journey worth taking due in large part to Engel’s musical deftness as our guide.

Captured live one December 2018 night in Bethlehem, PA with cellist Taylor Galassi, Where a City Once Drowned is a nine-years-later follow up to Engel’s first Bethlehem Tapes record, an album they say was never meant to become an album. I don’t know if the same is true of the second volume, but there’s an explicit sense of purpose and connection between the second volume’s six songs. They flow together like movements of a larger opus. 

Engel acts as both conjurer and narrator of the story Where a City Once Drowned inhabits. Their voice, eerie and penetrating on “At Night They Race Through the Stars”, takes centre stage, as poetic lyrics float in and out of ethereal melodies. Engel’s delicate, sparse guitar plucking and Galassi’s understated cello makes “Baba Yaga”’s spooky folk sound unfurl like rumination and a warning. By the time “Open a Door” closes this leg of our journey with Engel, Where a City Once Drowned deposits its listeners on a precipice; It’s unclear whether twilight is turning into night or darkness is about to recede into morning, but I believe that’s the point —and the magic — Clara Engel conjures throughout.

Jim Di Gioia

CoFounder at DOMINIONATED
Jim founded the music blog Quick Before It Melts in 2006 and was its principal writer until 2016, when its decade-long run ended 10 years to the day it started. DOMINIONATED is its spiritual successor. Jim currently serves as a Polaris Music Prize jurist and Prism Prize jurist.
Jim Di Gioia

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