The Good: Voice, Lyrics, Duration.
The Bad: Music, "Bonuses"
The Basics: Barely worth listening to, A Fine Frenzy's debut grew on me over many listens, but is a tough sell, even to a lover of up and coming female pop-rock artists.
When I first heard One Cell In The Sea, I had no idea who A Fine Frenzy was. However, I heard the single "Almost Lover" at a time when I was able to renew my interest and support for emerging female artists. Yes, having a minimal disposable income allowed me to purchase compact discs and that has led me to debuts like Little Voice by Sarah Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson's Girls And Boys. As part of my cross country trip to Las Vegas that year, I treated myself to a brand new (to me) c.d. by a new artist. So, while at the Mall of America, I spent some time interrogating the poor clerks at Barnes And Noble about various discs I came across there. That is where I found One Cell In The Sea and the truth is, I've already sold it out of my collection. A Fine Frenzy shows potential with the disc, but Bomb In A Birdcage (click here for my review!) held up better with multiple replays.
But that summer when I heard One Cell In The Sea, I ended up doing what I never do, which was purchase a c.d. based on a single track. I watched a music video for the song "Almost Lover," by A Fine Frenzy, which is the band for Alison Sudol. I was shocked at the lyrical quality and the vocal strength and given how frenetic the Mall Of America can be, I was surprised by how truly captivating the experience was. So, I found the lone album (at the time) by A Fine Frenzy, One Cell In The Sea and I purchased that. Despite my strong desire to support emerging artists, especially female pop-rock artists, this experience has reminded me why I usually am so very conservative in my compact disc buying habits.
With fourteen tracks clocking in at 61:51, One Cell In The Sea appears to be very much the creative vision of Alison Sudol. Sudol appears to be the consistent, driving force behind A Fine Frenzy, as she wrote or co-wrote all fourteen songs. She provides all of the primary vocals and most of the background vocals. As well, she plays piano or keyboard on several of the tracks. While she does not take any production credit on One Cell In The Sea, she is listed in the liner notes as contributing "Creative Direction." So, it seems that Ms. Sudol's A Fine Frenzy is very much under her control. This means that she takes most of the credit and blame for the resulting work.
One Cell In The Sea is brilliantly written, terribly repetitive, extraordinarily well-sung and utterly lacking in a hook to bring the listener back for multiple listens. The first listen - which is usually a sacred experience for me - occurred while driving. I was awake, eager, and driving with my mother from Minnesota to South Dakota and I was convinced it was not as bad as she grumbled when she finally could not remain silent any longer. The truth is, the album is not bad, the lead singer probably does not need a boyfriend (my mother had some serious issues with the moodiness of the lyrics), but my mother might have called it right with being repetitive and a little on the dull side.
A Fine Frenzy lacks the advertised frenzy. There is a deep sense of emotion that is expressed in the lyrics and vocals on much of One Cell In The Sea, but at the end of my eighth listen, I have no idea what the emotion is. Okay, it is alienation, at least through much of the album, but even that is not consistent and the songs that are not about alienation and the desire to develop a protective shell around oneself are utterly unmemorable.
Fortunately for A Fine Frenzy, many of the songs are memorable about healing and pain and the feeling of being young and alienated. The track that got me into the album is actually a wonderful expression of pain and loss from the near-miss of love that is almost never explored in pop-rock music. She develops what appears might be a love song, then crashes it apart with lyrics like, "Your fingertips across my skin, / The palm trees swaying in the wind, / Images / You sang me Spanish lullabies, / The sweetest sadness in your eyes . . . I'd never want to see you unhappy / I thought you'd want the same for me / Goodbye my almost lover / Goodbye my hopeless dream . . . So long my luckless romance / My back is turned on you / Should have known you'd bring me heartache / Almost lovers always do" ("Almost Lover"). The song is sung plaintively and with a sense of loss that is almost unparalleled for a first single. In that way, A Fine Frenzy stands out and if "Almost Lover's" sad cooing had not been the first single released off the album, it would have been notable as the one that deserved to be. It is emotional, insightful and illustrates a lyrical talent that most starting artists do not have.
A Fine Frenzy also has a great lyrical ability when it comes to metaphor and imagery. In creating a sense of desire for isolation and protection, she writes, ". . . The rangers stream / Out of their cabins / They are the hunters, / We are the rabbits / But maybe we don't want to be found" ("Rangers"). The song makes a statement that is compelling and clever without being whiny or even melancholy. She makes the idea of retreat seem like a desire to be with someone else as opposed to fleeing from everyone else and her voice makes it into an anthem for staying inside for the day. She makes other rousing tunes with "Liar, Liar," "The Minnow And The Trout," and even the album's opener "Come On, Come Out." The thing is, the potential of that first track remains largely unmet when the album collapses into mush in the second half.
On the later tracks, there is a greater sense of repetition and after "Liar, Liar," none of the lyrics sparkle with the same ability or imagery as the earlier ones. The result is a collection of songs in the latter half of the album that seem like filler; indeed, one suspects the reason that A Fine Frenzy's complete lyrics are not printed in the liner notes is to prevent the listener from discovering just how many times Sudol sings the title "Hope For The Hopeless" in that song. It could be an anthem for some sort of telethon retrospective, but it is singularly one of the most musically and lyrically boring tracks I have ever heard on a debut album. What isn't lyrically repetitive in the second half is utterly unmemorable. After eight listens (the ninth finished as I write the review) I could not tell you how "Lifesize" or the album's finale "Borrowed Time" sound or relate to the rest of the tracks because they were so completely unmemorable.
Vocally, Sudol has talent. Alison Sudol has a beautiful soprano voice and she has generally impressive range. She goes a little lower on "Lifesize" and she shows an ability to go high and soulful on tracks like "Almost Lover." And when she is not infusing her vocals with the type of self-absorbed melodramatic emotion that often characterizes youth, she is impressive and genuine, creating an air of quiet desperation and need. Her voice, when she finds her own voice, is beautiful and soulful and illustrates ability that makes it easy to see how One Cell In The Sea was produced and released.
Unfortunately, there are musical moments where Sudol seems to sacrifice her own voice for what we've already heard from other artists. On "Last Of Days," A Fine Frenzy seems to want to be Tori Amos, going high soprano, lone piano and almost indecipherable for its ethereal quality in the beginning. And while I enjoy the clever and very unique lyrics to "Near To You," it sounds like an early Sarah McLachlan track.
And yes, the music on One Cell In The Sea is a little limited in that most of the tracks are a lone woman and her piano. We've heard that before and A Fine Frenzy actually has little to contribute to that sound that we have not already gotten from the likes of McLachlan, Fiona Apple or even Norah Jones. Musically, this is a painfully dull album that leaves the listener with little or no impression of the artist as a musician.
The kicker for me was that A Fine Frenzy has fallen into what I can only consider a marketing ploy and this new band is going to bear the brunt of my wrath for that. So many artists try to generate interest in their work through slightly enhanced c.d.s that unlock exclusive content on-line and One Cell In The Sea does that with exclusive videos and five exclusive demo versions of some of the songs from the album. Well, I'll be the first to say, I am sick of this type of b.s. promotion. If the songs exist and you want us to have them, put them on the damned c.d. I'm shelling out money for the disc, wow me, fill it up! I don't want to have to work for additional tracks. I don't want to have to use my valuable time on-line to hunt down music I could be listening to already if you'd just put it on the disc I shelled out money for. There is certainly the capacity on One Cell In The Sea for most (if not all) of those bonus tracks and it is annoying, wasteful and pointless to have those who are just discovering an artist or who like an artist enough to shell out money for the disc to have to work for the additional material. It also screams of either narcissism or focus-group, data gathering in a way that is artistry corrupted by capitalism. But the short of it is, it is annoying to have extra steps to get to music one has already paid for and if One Cell In The Sea's musical lethargy is an injury to the listener, the bonus material being off-disc is the insult.
And that is enough to knock this debut out of the "recommend" slot. There is some hypocrisy here in that I kept my copy of One Cell In The Sea for about six months before getting rid of it - there are about five tracks that I had truly fallen in love with - but it is a tough sell as an album. In fact, I already suspect that if there ever comes a career for A Fine Frenzy that survives this debut, if those five tracks are ever on a "Best Of" album, this will be a happy jettison from my collection. It is too erratic an album and does not give the listener enough that is truly worth writing home about to purchase.
The best track is "Almost Lover," the low point is the terrible repetition of "Hope For The Hopeless."
For other works by female artists, please check out my reviews of:
Natalie Imbruglia - Left Of The Middle
Dar Williams - The Honesty Room
Sophie B. Hawkins - Right Beside You (single)
For other music reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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