Tenci Is About to Blow the Fuck Up

Izzy True talks My Heart is an Open Field, the "promising first offering" from Jess Shoman.

In the first 15 seconds of Tenci’s debut album, My Heart Is An Open Field,  a peel of quavering, high-noon guitar cuts through silence. It is a flash of lightening that illuminates the wide open space the record rests upon. “Earthquake,” the opening track, breaks from that moment of ominous tension into a gentle, lilting shuffle — a cradle for songwriter Jess Shoman’s wild and pure voice. 

The first time I saw Tenci was at a basement show in early 2019, not long after the band’s formation. At the time, the band was a two piece — Shoman had recently recruited bassist and vocalist Tina Scarpello to begin fleshing out songs from a self-released demo. The performance was mesmerizing. The simple line up allowed Shoman to let her voice weave and play around the steady foundation of Scarpello’s bass, and her own rhythmic guitar playing. This minimal arrangement also highlighted the chemistry between Shoman and Scarpello. There is a sense of freedom and a looseness to Shoman’s playing which demands a kind of telepathy from her fellow musicians to do justice by it. The effect was an audience transfixed, a kind of spell which kept everyone still and quiet, trying not to breathe and disrupt the crucial silences which kept the whole thing afloat. It was clear to me then that Tenci is a Chicago treasure, a feeling that has been confirmed in the months since that show. 

The best moments of My Heart is An Open Field capture the synergy of that first live show, tracing the edges of the song, implying more than directly defining. Shoman approaches her subjects sideways, offering us her experiences through the haze of memory or peripheral vision. The track “Serpent” is one of my favorites on the record, and exemplifies this approach. For most of the song, Shoman sounds like she is singing through a mouth barely opened, as if to herself only, allowing few words to come forth clearly enunciated, giving us only some of the picture. There is a slow build which crescendos briefly into a full throated cry, followed by a chaotic collapse, and ultimately a return to the same calm rhythm which permeates the record. Her vocal technique is virtuosic. Every yip and lilt carries its own implication, managing to be simultaneously masterful and spontaneous. 

The record features instrumentation greatly expanded from those early days as a duo, adding not only drums, but saxophone, flute, cello, and synths, all performed by a talented cast of Chicago musicians. They follow the flitting butterfly path cut by Shoman’s voice and guitar, tumbling along after her. My Heart Is An Open Field has something of the wild-ponies-running-free feeling of Bill Callahan, served with a dose of more human tenderness. Here is a hint of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In An Aeroplane Over The Sea world building, with substantially less noisy drama. 

Shoman’s skill has, in a few short months, attracted gifted collaborators and a lot of local attention. My Heart Is An Open Field is a promising first offering from a band I fully expect to blow the fuck up. I recommend you take advantage of the end of summer to sit on a porch somewhere at sundown and listen through the entire thing.

Izzy True (they/them pronouns) is a musician and artist living in Chicago, IL.

(Photo Credit: Andi Carbaugh)