As a certified, card-carrying vegan, sometimes I just need some avant-garde chamber music about vegetables. I know, that’s quite a genre niche, but thankfully Helen Svoboda is here to deliver. You might remember her from The Biology of Plants, and specifically their fantastic album Vol. 2 from last year. In my review, I raved about the group’s dynamic, dazzling blend of nu-jazz, art rock, and modern classical, which was heavily indebted to everything Svoboda brought to the table as a bassist, vocalist, and composer. She expands on those talents further with Vegetable Bass, a wildly creative solo release only limited by Svoboda’s expansive imagination.
In my view, one of the most rewarding things an album can provide is a truly transportive experience. Throughout Vegetable Bass, it felt like I was the sole audience member for Svoboda’s captivating avant-garde musical. It helps that the album’s subject matter is equally engaging. On Vegetable Bass, Svoboda “[Hails] her favourite food group … [paying] tribute to Mother Nature and its culinary offerings – expressed vastly through sound.” She describes this sonic expression as “crazy, quirky, and just pretty unusual.” Suffice it so say, all of the above effectively piqued my interest in what such a unique premise might offer.
As soon as Svoboda’s gorgeous vocals and whirring double bass kicked into full swing on “A Tree Tells,” it was clear she’d knocked this concept out of the park. The track showcases a beautiful, reflexive duet between her singing and instrumentation, amplified by simple but potent lyrics:
I spoke with you today, standing in dismay
The world is not what it once was
You’ve seen it all unfold
The stories that you’ve told, the wisdom that you hold
The world is not what it once was
Perhaps Svoboda wrote these lyrics for the present chaos of our world, or maybe this sentiment resonated with me because our society is always in some form of disarray. Regardless, the way Svoboda’s lifts these words up with a stunning vocal arrangement made the weight of the song’s meaning feel even more impactful.
While her singing on “A Tree Tells” launches the album on a high note, Svoboda doesn’t let her vocals do all the talking. “Jerusalem Artichoke” is a tension-filled instrumental composition, which sounds like Colin Stetson or Sarah Neufeld trying out their post-minimalist stylings on double bass. And if you told me “BEAN” and “Squash” were Les Claypool’s flirtations with chamber jazz, I probably would have believed you. That’s one of Svoboda’s greatest strengths as a songwriter; she shifts between jazz and classical tendencies so seamlessly, and in general, her compositions are always eclectic and engaging.
Case in point, the latter half of Vegetable Bass sees Svoboda digging deeper into the depths of her creativity. Tracks like “Holy Basil,” “Beetroot (in blossom),” and “Paprika” combine soaring vocalizations from Svoboda twisting with intense displays of double bass. Meanwhile, “Soggy Ratatouille” manifests that “solo, avant-garde musical” comparison I mentioned earlier. After all this experimentation, Svoboda brings the album full circle with the short, melodic outro “Growing (out of nothing),” comparing the journey of seeds becoming plants to our own efforts to find meaning and personal growth.
In a way, the lyrics on the album’s bookend tracks reminds me of my favorite Albert Camus quote:
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.
Amid everything we’re facing right now, I’ve taken immense solace in yet another year of incredible music. No matter how draining it is to confront both the massive and mundane aspects of current events, the creativity at our fingertips provides more than enough inspiration to keep on pushing forward. Vegetable Bass is above all else an unfiltered expression of inspired imagination, and as is often the case, that’s resulted in a truly fantastic album.