Carla Dal Forno enchants and evades on her solo debut


When Carla Dal Forno began working on You Know What It’s Like, she had mostly made music in collaborative settings, with various Melbourne bands: the Flying Nun-ready punk band Mole House, the death-folk outlet Fingers, and the trippy electronic duo Tarcar. Feeling compelled to try her own hand at production, she set up basic recording equipment at her kitchen table and set out to discover what her musical impulses might manifest standing alone. That exploratory mind-set permeates every aspect of her first full-length effort.

More meditations on moods than songs, these eight tracks are preoccupied with impermanence and ambiguity. From the first vocal track, “Fast Moving Cars,” Dal Forno makes her restlessness known: “To stay in one place I have no desire / The world’s so much vaster.” Sonically, this preoccupation translates as a dark, lo-fi electronic aesthetic that pushes and pulls listeners between genres. Everything from post-punk to U.K. dub, Chicago house to ’80s synth pop lives here in gloomy accordance.

Despite its suggestively familiar title, the album feels like a walk through a foreign world. Opener “Italian Cinema” is a sci-fi soundscape of aircraft whir rising and falling that’s reminiscent of the Barrons’ primitive electronic soundtrack for Forbidden Planet. The chalky, half-danceable chug of single “What You Gonna Do Now?” matches its own ambulatory video in which night falls onto black-and-white city streets. In “Dry In The Rain,” hollow wood and wind tones soundtrack a slow, ritualistic march through a damp forest, but one that rewards listeners toward its end with the album’s most beautiful vocal moment: an unintelligible wisp of a melisma that dissipates just as quickly as it appears.

That brief pleasure is the essence of Dal Forno’s record, where there is a constant sense of being just barely outrun by something up ahead. She continually intrigues then eludes listeners, drawing them in with simple melodies and frank, conversational lyrics, but obscuring half the words; she enchants with a Marine Girls-like sincerity but cancels it out with an inscrutability that’s reminiscent of Nico.

This evasiveness might be frustrating were the songs not grounded in insistent, entrancing grooves. The pulsating instrumental “DB Rip,” for instance—calling to mind the packed dance floors of Dal Forno’s newly adopted city, Berlin—pairs a simple beat with a four-note progression and meditates on it nearly straight through. Every added element, like the track’s gothic, choirlike swirl, mimics the same basic trance.

On the downside, no song on You Know What It’s Like strays far from this structure, so the record’s minimalism sometimes edges toward monotony. But that monotony, one of the album’s weaker aspects, happens to serve one of its strongest: the dynamic background atmosphere. On repeated listens, the main grooves recede slightly in the mind and attention can be turned to the many passing scrapes, shutting doors, and staticky transmissions that might first go unnoticed.

Promotions for You Know What It’s Like call it a record “for in-between days,” and at a fleeting 31 minutes, it does succeed in demonstrating life’s capriciousness—we all do know what that’s like. It’s an honest statement on what it means to balance a hopeful curiosity and a melancholic uncertainty, romanticism and pragmatism. Speaking to lovers with unsympathetic lines like “And now a wild wind rips past / Did you want this to last / A long time?” Dal Forno proves she leans toward the latter.