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Group at Work: Arc Iris

Ryan Reed | May 15, 2014

When Jocie Adams ventured off to form Arc Iris, her genre-blurring new eight-piece collective, she took a major creative—and financial—risk. Her former band, indie-folk outfit The Low Anthem, had finally broken through to a national audience with 2011’s Smart Flesh, earning solid reviews and high-profile spots on the late-night circuit. But comparing that straightforward,

low-key album to Arc Iris’ wildly eclectic debut LP, it’s crazy to think that Adams—a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and classical composer—could have ever worked in such a restrained musical space.

“We were sort of growing in different musical directions,” she says of her former band, which she left officially last summer. “But I also wanted a little more creative freedom, I guess.”

With Arc Iris, she’s certainly found it. The group’s self-titled album is a sprawling, sonic free-for-all, featuring an army of highly trained players (including frequent collaborators like cellist Robin Ryczek and trumpeter Mike Irwin) cycling through moods and instrumentation with little regard to genre boundaries. On the operatic ballad “Canadian Cowboy,” Adams’ jarring vocal spirals over jazzy piano flourishes, consoled by muted trumpets and double-bass; opener “Money Gnomes,” a blend of chamber-pop and bluegrass, is the most visceral thrill, as banjos mingle with sawing cello lines and pedal steel through shifting time signatures, while Adams daydreams fairy-tale images in her cutesy chirp.

The sheer eclecticism alone is astonishing, but what’s more impressive is how seamless it all sounds. “I think it’s sort of naturally the way that I write,” Adams says. “And also, the people I play with are all very talented and able to play different things that we try.”

Given her versatility and compositional skill, it’s easy to wonder why Adams didn’t frame Arc Iris as a solo project. (After all, she did release a solo album, 2011’s under-the-radar Bed Of Notions, which retrospectively foreshadows her Low Anthem exit.) But Adams clearly had grander ideas with this project.

“I definitely think of it as a band,” she says. “Only the band is so big, we obviously don’t have enough money to travel with everybody from the onset. You can’t have all eight people at every show on a tour, but we definitely think of it as a band—we are a band.”