Nicole Saphos Band - Figure Eights (Album Review)

There's something bittersweet about rummaging through old boxes in the attic. Artefacts from the past, like old photographs, love letters, and cultural knick-knacks, can inspire poignant trips down memory lane. In the case of Nicole Saphos, home-recorded VHS tapes were the source of inspiration for her third album, Figure Eights. 

An LA native and Philadephia transplant, Saphos writes intellectually-leaning pop music with indifference to the mainstream. Her personal writing and idiosyncratic singing might sound like the cheekily brilliant works of Fiona Apple or the fun sweetness of Ben Folds, but Saphos' otherness feels refreshingly unforced and naturally musical. 

Saphos is a multi-instrumentalist and talented double bass player, with that instrument being the driving force to her mettlesome songs. And despite having little interest in consistent tempos, her compositions and lyrics do pay a debt to tradition, like the alluringly alt-pop-jazz fusion of the opening track "Spend A Little Time", a song about the redemptive power of human attention, or "Stoic Companion", which speaks to the uncertainties of having a relationship with a human statue incapable of showing  vulnerability, and perhaps drawing strength from such an interaction. 

"And Only" is a funky interpretation of the poem "Fire-Flowers" by Emily Pauline Johnson. This jovial Vulfpeckesque cut gives the profound source material deservingly far-reaching ambition through ever-changing and mischievous patterns. Unsurprisingly, Figure Eights centres on Saphos' "lifelong propensity for patterns". But, while patterned, there's little grounding to these amorphisms. For example, "Tryin' To Be" forgoes straightforward song structures to create a boppy and mellifluous tune that turns a drastic turn to a hard rock instrumental passage led by electric guitar and raucous drumming.  

The brief "Thoughts Over You" may be less than a minute, but it is the most coherent song in the collection. Of course, coherence is only sometimes desirable, especially in alt-pop, a genre Saphos occupies comfortably. Aside from the cosy and rich production, there is much to admire about these songs. They flitter between stylishly hip executions and more jaunty proclamations with all the die-hard enthusiasm of an understudy in a Broadway musical proving themselves to the world. The feel-good vibes of "My Intention" and the timelessly charming "More" perfectly service these oscillations.  

The album cover by photographer Jordana Rubenstein-Edberg shows Saphos sitting in a chair and looking over her shoulder. This suits an album that sees the artist drawing inspiration from her past. Look closely, and you'll spot that she is wearing guarded ice skates, an ode to the memories she has of ""ice skating" over every carpeted surface of her 90s childhood home."

Figure Eights is an enjoyably wavering ride through the conflicting feelings of joy and regret that come from exploring the past, pulled off with a unique brand of proudly alternative music.