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The best kept secret in music


"One Times One"

Puffed Wheat Records

      Philadelphia-based Illumina is the group that I’ve been dreaming of for a while now. Music writers all long for that one band to come along and deliver an album that makes them a fan from the get-go, before they’ve even thought about formulating a single sentence. What makes it all the more sweeter is when it comes from such a young band that is already so “there” that all you can do is just sit back and smile stupidly to yourself while the cd plays. Illumina whispers in my ear that they love me, and I believe it.

      Nightlight, the debut cd from this seven-piece musical collective, is such a mature and ambitious album that it’s hard to believe it came from a band whose median age is a mere twenty-one years old. On the other hand, Brian Wilson was only twenty-four when he made “Pet Sounds.” There are heaps of influences on “Nightlight,” from Rainer Maria to Azure Ray to Wilson’s “Smile” and “Pet Sounds,” yet Illumina’s biggest asset is how it takes these influences and expands on them. This is not a band content to merely repeat history.

      Utilizing broad instrumentation, including strings, banjo, chimes, steel guitar and random clicks, buzzes and hums, Nightlight is at once both mainstream and incredibly forward-thinking. From the opening track, “Not Really,” it’s clear that this is not going to be your typical Indie-band. The songs are all propelled by the fact that the band counts three lead singers and boasts a cast of musicians who can play anything that the songs require of them.

      The strongest tracks on the album tend to be those that are sung by either of the two female singers in the band, Jen Appel (guitar, vocals) and Minna Choi (vocals, keyboards.) Choi’s three songs are more minimalist in scope, the standout being “Lullaby,” an abstract, child-like dirge whose restrained beauty nearly steals the album. Appel’s cuts are more soaring in their loveliness, and her voice, rich with an enormous depth of emotion, is the star of Nightlight. “Not Really” is a thrill to listen to, while closing track “North” is perfectly heartbreaking with its stark intro and melody gradually building to a passionate, string-soaked crescendo before trailing off into a wash of electronic blips.

      The rest of the album showcases guitarist/singer Marc Goodman’s considerable talents. Goodman’s tracks bring out a more adventurous side of Illumina, though some of his arrangements sometimes lean a little too heavily on traditional Indie-rock clichés. Still, songs like “Acceptance as a Gift” and “Thoughtful Letters” are miles ahead of anything I’ve heard lately. Goodman is a gifted songwriter with a good voice and a great ear for detail. All the cuts on “Nightlight” are shockingly good, original and refreshing. It doesn’t play like a debut album at all, but more like a fourth or fifth record, the one that defines a band’s career.

     Considering how much Illumina plays in NYC makes me want to kick my own ass for moving from New York to Denmark last year. Discovering a band of this caliber at the beginning of their career is every music reviewer’s dream, and I’d like to go on record as being the first to say it: This band is going to change your life.

-Mark Horan -


Great music is arguably the result of one or two central egos in conflict with two or more figures trying not to let that ego consume the whole of the group. Smashing Pumpkins were brilliant in their original incarnation, though once fewer original members were around to speak up against Billy Corgan, the music became mediocre and eventually embarrassing. Or how about the Fall? The Brix years were undoubtedly among their best, but her rocky marriage with Mark E. Smith may have played some part into what created the tension that tightened up their sound. They did, after all, record countless forgettable records thereafter and have only recently begun to resurface to their previous level of greatness.

But if songwriters are given the opportunity to breathe, each one allotted their own space for creating something of their own, can the end result be as good as that which is created from such tension? Illumina answers that question with their debut, Nightlight. And the answer is yes. The New York and Pennsylvania-based Illumina has three central songwriters — Jen Appel, Marc Goodman and Minna Choi — each with their own distinct voice. In terms of sheer numbers, Goodman is the one doing the bulk of the writing, though quantity doesn't equal quality, and in the latter department, he is equally matched by his bandmates.

What these songwriters do share, however, is a penchant for darker, minor-key melodies and sounds, betraying what their name may say about them. Appel's "Not Really" is a compelling album opener, as a distorted riff teases the listener into believing the song is about to explode, though in actuality, psychedelic, ambient textures bleed slowly into the song's fabric while Jen's lovely vocals float atop. Conversely, the next song of hers on the record, "Parts," is significantly louder and more straightforward. The subtler "You Used to Have Mileage" may be her best, however, for simply being the prettiest of her contributions here, particularly during the chorus, when all instruments, save for a flute, eerily drop out of the mix.

Minna Choi's contributions are fewest in number, but no less forgettable. "Lullaby" is haunting and sweet as her childlike voice is barely audible over droning organ chords. "We're in Love Again" is equally dense in organ and bare in arrangement, though Choi is augmented this time around by a drum machine. Her best moment is the countrypolitan waltz of "The New Apology" that not only shows off her songwriting strengths, but the strengths of the band as a whole. Every instrument is layered gently and delicately, while every note seems to fall into place at just the right time.

As I said before, Marc Goodman is responsible for half of the material on Nightlight, and many of his contributions are closest the album comes to straightforward rock music. That doesn't mean they are, but comparatively, they come across as such. "Acceptance as a Gift" actually rocks out beneath the effects-laden vocals and "In Effigy" shares sonic similarities to Elliott Smith's more heavily produced tracks. But Goodman has his moments of quietude as well, like the beautiful but brief "Acceptance" and the graceful, though slightly louder "Thoughtful Letters."

Having three separate songwriters could potentially create a disjointed and incoherent album, but thankfully Illumina's Nightlight is a surprisingly cohesive listen. While each writer has his or her own voice, it's the dynamic of the band that keeps it all together, allowing for seamless transitions between songs. Illumina creates stunning music without the ego, the grace and beauty of each song held up by each individual voice.

-Jeff Terich -

"Time Out NY 1/5/05"

You could call Illumina's evolution an exercise in entropy or innovation. What started in 2001 as a four track projecct between former East Village roomates Jen Appel and Marc Goodman morphed into a chamber pop septet and, last year, led to a six-month recording-studio-free-for-all.
Unsatisfied with the results of their initial efforts, Illumina, with Appel and Goodman at the helm, invited their may instrument-playing friends to the studio. A band-camp recital's worth of noises - including timpani, vibraphone, banjo, flute and what sounds like breaking glass - adorn the 14 heartbreaking tracks on the group's debut, Nightlight (puffed wheat).
Despite its fluid and somewhat chaotic genesis, the ensemble, whose seven core members are celebrating the record's release tonight, is focused and elegant, coming off like a blend of Neutral Milk Hotel and Built to Spill as imagined by a small orchestra. There's little thematic meandering: The performers limit their lyrical exploration to love and its wreckage. Less a singular cohesive work than collected variations on a theme, Nightlight unspools like the score to a forgotten musical: airy, angelic and dulcet one minute, thunderous and edgy the next.
This, actually, could describe the respective voices of Appel and Goodman. When the two come together, as in the chilling heartstring-ripper "In Effigy," they have the power to bring you to your knees.

-Alison Rosen - Time Out New York 1/5/05


Nightlight - 2004 - Puffed Wheat Records (Self Released)


Feeling a bit camera shy


illumina extends melodies in subtle, almost fragile ways, embellishing a modern sound with flourishes of
romantic or even victorian sounding elements. illumina differs from other beatles/beach boys influenced artists, such as sparklehorse, beulah and neutral milk hotel, in their sense of the delicate. illumina architect's melodies and surrounds and supports them with noises from the quiet and subtle (handclaps, toy xylophones, finger cymbals) to the bombastic and overt (timpani, cello, distorted guitar.) With a solid melody at its foundation an illumina composition is built in layers and stripped away to explore the relationship between silence and noise. The songs on nightlight will wake you up from the sleep it has just lulled you into.

illumina's seven members recorded their debut record, nightlight, at strange weather, the band's home studio, over six months with the help of eight other musicians including guitar and bass players, a horn trio and an upright bassist. The record was mixed at studio g with tony maimone (pere ubu, they might be giants, lucinda williams, frank black) and joel hamilton (sparklehorse, ani difranco, propaghandi.)

The band was formed when Goodman and Appel met as undergraduates in New York City and grew as they found like minded musicians to craft the layers and intricacies that define illumina's songs.