- Inspired by the black aviator Bessie Coleman, this LP's bassy house and techno highlights Pursuit Grooves' versatile sound.
- Bessie Coleman overcame many obstacles and achieved much in her short life. Born in 1892, she was raised alongside 12 siblings in Texas by parents of African-American and Native-American descent in an era when the South was still in the grip of the Jim Crow laws. She attended a segregated school four miles from home, and later enrolled at Langston Industrial College, though her savings ran out after one term. After moving to Chicago in her mid-20s, Coleman wanted to fly. She was encouraged to obtain her license in France—aviation schools in America would have refused to train her, and several pilots turned her down. Eventually, she became famous in America as the daredevil pilot Queen Bess. She wanted her example to inspire other African Americans, and she used her platform to speak out against racism up until her death in a flying accident in 1926.
"Because of Bessie Coleman," wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in 1934, "we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream." Racial and gender equality might be in better shape than it was a century ago, but Coleman's story bears repeating when many barriers remain in place for women of colour trying to break into esoteric careers. On her new album as Pursuit Grooves, Vanese Smith puts the aviator's story front and centre, reconstructing radio spots and reciting letters in an endearing range of voices and styles that help give a sense of the era in which Coleman took flight.
Originally signed to Pinch's Tectonic label in 2010, Smith has since operated independently, releasing her music almost entirely through her own What Rules Recordings (excluding remixes for artists like The Knife and Planningtorock). Whatever the style, there's always been a sense of unpolished expression about the Pursuit Grooves sound. In the music's uncluttered mixes and restraint with effects, it emerges once more on Bess. Even when the synths bleed beyond the edges, as on album highlight "Daredevil," Smith keeps her arrangements clean and her sounds raw.
It's a shame that we don't hear more of Smith's voice, which balances fortitude and tenderness, on the album. When it does appear, as on "Stand Firm On Wings," she couches Coleman's legacy in universal terms: "Walking towards destiny, come on lift me up / Let's defy the air, stand firm on wings, don't give up." But Smith's tracks sit comfortably on their own, too. "The French Connect" has a surprisingly club-ready energy with snagging interplay between bass and a grime-like synewave. "Barnstorming" features the kind of splayed groove you'd expect from Afrikan Sciences.
When talking to Bandcamp's Chaka V. Grier about the meaning of her last album, Felt Armour, Smith explained, "Felt is an emotion. It's soft material. Armour is the tough exterior that we have in order to protect and guard ourselves and feel safe when we're in questionable situations." That balance of extremes also defines Bess—a consistent interplay between tough, crunchy drums and emotionally charged synths outlines nearly every track—and yet it remains engaging. The music, drawing from Coleman's example, is by turns hopeful and defiant throughout.
01. Checkerboard Airdrome (Intro) Chicago, 1922
02. Hair Raising
03. Lady Bird
04. Stand Firm On Wings
05. Cloud Pusher
07. The French Connect
09. Welcome to Columbus (Interlude) Ohio, 1923
10. Principal Thrill
12. I'll Be Fine
14. Norman Studios (Interlude) Florida, 1926
15. Yesterday Today Tomorrow