On their MySpace page, Rings designate their genre as "jungle." Maybe it's a private joke with their friends Gang Gang Dance, who identify as "big beat," but if the term wasn't already claimed, "jungle" wouldn't be a bad way to put it. There's something slithery and foliage-like about this all-female trio's music, which on initial exposure seems structureless but soon reveals a curly logic and askew shapeliness.
Usually filed under freak folk (perhaps because of their Animal Collective connection), Rings are actually closer to the world-y drift of a certain strain of postpunk. The plaintive twitter of their unison vocals recalls the later Raincoats of Odyshape and "Animal Rhapsody," while lyrics like "On this earth/We're all hurt/Disconnected from the land" remind me of the eco-mystical Slits of "Earthbeat" and "Animal Space." Black Habit is not actually this New York outfit's debut: In 2006, they released a self-titled album under the name First Nation, a phrase intended to evoke a primordial human kinship from before "all the political and cultural structures that exist now," as the band's Kate Rosko explained in one interview. Rings, their new name, is similarly freighted with meaning, condensing notions of sisterly cooperation, natural cycles, and "circular composition."
Listening to Black Habit, you do mentally picture a circle: three young women facing each other, their instruments co-existing amiably rather than being tightly locked to form a single-minded rock machine. The guitar, usually but not always played by Nina Mehta, is all spidery flickers and crabwise sidling; the keyboards, usually but not always played by Rosko, trill delicately or loop into gently propulsive patterns; the drums, usually but not always played by Abby Portner, don't lay down a backbeat, but lope alongside the other instruments or erupt in bursts of vivid expressiveness. The vocals, sung by all three, also have a bursting quality, a piercing sweetness shading into dissonance that comes to the fore on lovely songs like "You Remind Me" and "Teepee." This group can get fairly deranged: "Is He Handsome" is daubed with electronic noise, while "Scape Aside" devolves through cacophonous guitar and cawing strings into a bestial chorale of babble and gibber. But generally, Rings offer a free music that doesn't banish prettiness, intimacy, or tenderness.
Evidently the product of diligent craft and conceptual forethought, Black Habit nonetheless manages to seem "artless," that old avant-garde dream of "making music like it's being made for the first time." It's a tall order in this data-saturated, knowingness-afflicted age, and some would argue a suspect fantasy in the first place. (I'd half-forgotten why it was ever considered a good idea, but Rings reminded me.) Shedding all those ingrained preconceptions opens up at least the possibility of creating the proverbial "something new" under the sun. If the band doesn't completely disable the reference-point-spotting sector of my brain (my problem far more than theirs), they come real close on this wondrous album.