The Good: Great vocals, Musical diversity, Decent lyrics
The Bad: SHORT, Some of songs do sound remarkably similar.
The Basics: A truly inspired sophomore album, A Fine Frenzy returns with Bomb In A Birdcage, which is wonderful pop-rock driven by inspired feminine lyrics!
Back in January, I had the good fortune to divert from my Artist Of The Month (who had been Reba McEntire) and I turned my attention and ear to another redhead, Alison Sudol. Sudol released her second album under the “band” name A Fine Frenzy, in late-August of 2009 to almost no fanfare. The upbeat pop single “Blow Away,” which was intended to launch the album commercially was buried as most pop-rock stations play hip-hop, Country-pop and were inundated at the time with Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. It’s too bad, though, because Bomb In A Birdcage is a surprisingly good album and one that I enjoy more and more as I become more familiar with it. That is the opposite effect that A Fine Frenzy's debut, One Cell In The Sea had on me. One Cell In The Sea was weakened because it truly was an album built around one fabulous single with a monotonous tone pervading the overall sound of the album.
But with Bomb In A Birdcage, A Fine Frenzy overcomes any potential sophomore slump by providing an exceptionally diverse album where no two songs sound quite alike. The unifying aspect of Bomb In A Birdcage is Sudol, her voice and her lyrical prowess. A Fine Frenzy has a richer sound on Bomb In A Birdcage, but even with the track to track diversity this is very mainstream pop-rock. The album follows well in the tradition of Tori Amos (no, not just because of the vibrant red hair of the singer-songwriter) and Fiona Apple with the whole “one woman and a piano” sound. Still, the songs on Bomb In A Birdcage are fleshed out magnificently with drums, strings (very moody and cool on “Elements”) and even very rockin’ guitars. The energy level on Bomb In A Birdcage is high, but A Fine Frenzy manages to be suitably moody and deep at the same time. As a result, the first listen (I'm on listen number nine now) is actually an auditory experience that is quite extraordinary as track to track, the listener gets an entirely different sound and feel.
With only eleven songs occupying a slight 46:34, perhaps the biggest black mark against Bomb In A Birdcage is its short duration. Both iTunes and Amazon MP3 have exclusive tracks which extend the length of the album (I'm wishing I had done the virtual music thing again the way I did for Imogen Heap’s new album). It’s a slight mark against the album when one considers that Sudol wrote all eleven songs and she performs the primary piano and vocals on each song. In fact, the only creative aspect that she relinquishes is the production, but given how she is paired with her previous producer, one suspects this is the musical vision she wanted to release.
On Bomb In A Birdcage, Sudol’s vocals transform from light and whispy on songs like “Bird Of The Summer” to energetic on “Electric Twist.” While opening the album with the fun, upbeat pop number “Wouldn't Do,” she becomes the defiant and strong-willed rebel on “Stood Up.” “Stood Up” is a notable departure for A Fine Frenzy, banging out a song that is powerful and has the anger of social reform put to music encapsulated in every line and note Sudol sings. But early on in the album, songs like “New Heights” and “Happier” characterize A Fine Frenzy as one of the day's leading pop divas . . . if only people were listening to her. Unfortunately, with the general commercial apathy toward Bomb In A Birdcage, A Fine Frenzy is unlikely to take its rightful place in the charts, unless Barnes & Noble customers suddenly start driving the marketplace. Ten years ago, A Fine Frenzy would have been huge.
As it stands now, the instrumental accompaniment on Bomb In A Birdcage makes it an out-of-place album in today's commercial marketplace. The album is mostly moody ballads that do embody the “one woman and a piano” sound, but virtually all of those songs enrich the basic piano and vocal combination with noticeable percussion and strong bass. The combination of the lower guitars and Sudol’s soprano make for a compelling sound which has the ability to oscillate greatly between dangerously moody (“Stood Up”) and fun and energetic (“Electric Twist”). There are annoying similarities in the instrumental accompaniment between “New Heights” and “The World Without,” as both are heavily-produced tracks with banging pianos.
Vocally, A Fine Frenzy is very much Alison Sudol. She has a forthright and articulate soprano voice and unlike many young women who seem to want to simply illustrate how high she can sing, A Fine Frenzy is characterized well by lyrics that the listener can actually understand. Each and every song, no matter now moody or produced the instrumental accompaniment is, features Sudol’s natural voice (though it is altered at moments for “Stood Up” to have a mechanized sound that is purposeful given the themes of the song). And it is clear that Sudol is classically trained and has a great voice. No doubt, Sudol’s vocals on “Beacon” would be compared to those of Amy Lee . . . if only she had Evanescence’s audience base!
Lyrically, A Fine Frenzy's Bomb In A Birdcage tackles more than just the usual pop-rock topics of love and loss. In this album's world, relationships are complicated and the lyrics reflect that. The album is instantly disarming with the storysong “Wouldn't Do” and it is charming to open with fun lines like “If we were children I would bake you a mud pie / Warm and brown beneath the sun / Never learned to climb a tree but I would try / Just to show you what I'd done / Oh what I wouldn't do / If I had you, babe, I had you.” But this is somewhat deceptive for the depth of the remainder of the album. On other songs, A Fine Frenzy loses the fun of the early relationship and delves into complexity in relationships or loss.
Throughout, A Fine Frenzy has a decent sense of imagery to the songs and there is a rare poetry to most of the songs. When Sudol sings “You show up like a hurricane, all hungry-eyed and weather-stained / The clock forgets to tick and I the same / I died the day you disappeared, so why would you be welcome here? / Ride the wind that brought you back away / No you can't come in . . . / I cannot stop my rebel hands from pulling out the pots and pans / I left you in the cold until you shook / You're gentle now, but I recall / Both tender fire and bitter squall / A history so deep it hurts to look” (“Elements”), it is hard not to feel a wrenching in the very heart. Still, this is not childish emo music, instead, A Fine Frenzy keeps the same level of diction with completely different emotional resonance on “Happier.”
It is a rare thing that I come up with an album I am enjoying so very much, but cannot muster up the energy to figure out a superlative track and I think that speaks well of Bomb In A Birdcage. Anyone looking for a strong female singer-songwriter with a unique and diverse sound will find A Fine Frenzy's second album delivers that. Those who were more neutral to One Cell In The Sea will find this fixes the problems that album had and moves the artist forward. Become the audience the band needs; with progress like this, A Fine Frenzy is poised for a perfect third album!
The only song that did not grab me enough to be stuck in my head for a while was “The World Without.”
For works by other female musical artists, please check out my reviews of:
Dar Williams - The Honesty Room
Sophie B. Hawkins - Right Beside You
No Doubt - Tragic Kingdom
For more music reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.