Nashville-born, Brooklyn-based Mackenzie Scott was 22 in 2013 when she recorded and self-released her debut album under the ambiguous name Torres. On it, she presents a fully formed musical identity: highly intimate, often painful lyrics, accompanied by her own strummed, scraped and, at times, surprising guitar playing. Recorded live to tape, the 10-track Torres instantly attracted attention for Scott’s memorably scorched vocal tones, harrowing subject matter and arresting loud-soft dynamics. She owes something to 1990s college rock icons (PJ Harvey, Lisa Germano, etc.) but the most relevant comparison might be to the late Chris Whitley, with whom she shares some production and guitar techniques.
In her best song, “Moon & Back,” she opens “Little baby, if you’re reading this…I’m writing you from 1991” It’s a vivid message of a mother to a daughter given up for adoption. Torres has confirmed in private conversation that she is the 22-year old who was given up for adoption as a baby in that year, and it’s her envisioning what her birth mother may have felt. The math and the subject matter make the logic inescapable.
In “Honey,” “Mother Earth, Father Sky” and “Jealousy and I,” Torres sings of unmet needs, desires and simmering conflicts that threaten to explode. Cellos, keyboards, and a rhythm section add some heft, but most of the presence is Scott herself. There is deep emotional intensity here, held under control by a steadfast effort. Like the best of the 1990s alternative songwriters, Scott excels at building tension with a song, only to suddenly throttle back to simple strummed guitar and vocals before raising the emotional stakes again. It’s wrenching stuff for a young woman to sing, and engrossing and riveting to see it from her standing on a stage.
Sprinter is a substantial step forward from the self-titled debut, both commercially and artistically. Scott fully embraces the 1990s comparisons (especially P.J. Harvey) and backed her singing with a full band in the studio for the first time. She is exceptionally effective as a storyteller, contemplating her own childhood and its regrets with unflinching directness. The excess of religion and the harm it can inflict on children are the subjects of the title track, where Scott’s voice is processed, multi-tracked hypnotically on the chorus. (“There’s freedom to, and freedom from / Freedom to run, from everyone / While what I did, is what is done / The Baptist in me chose to run.”)
Torres is at its best when Scott balances her firm sense of emotional control with the sense of chaos encroaching from all sides. “A Proper Polish Welcome” is a lovely folk song, with shivering guitar from Portishead’s Adrian Utley, that underlies its frigidity and sense of dread like an American Gothic version of Fairport Convention’s essays on the Anglo-Scots Child Ballads. “New Skin” and “Strange Hellos” employ carnal and religious themes — skin, rebirth, physical and mental decay, the Christian wedding liturgy. With backing vocals from Sharon Van Etten and soaring guitars from the War on Drugs, “New Skin” captures Scott both at her most intimate and her most stormy. “I’m a tired woman / In January I will just be 23 / In Kansas City I was undressed and bested.” Is it a forced marriage or merely an unhappy one? Scott excels at depicting personal pain, chewing it over in contemplation and spitting it back out. Despite the trauma implied in many of the songs, there is great beauty as well; Torres walks a fine line between delicacy and ugliness.
In 2014, Torres shared a Record Store Day split single with Motel Beds, featuring Kelley Deal, formerly of the Breeders.