Monday, July 11, 2011

Wonderful Album, Terrible Title, 300 Days At Sea Has Heather Nova Moving In (Mostly) Unpredictable Ways.

The Good: Vocals, Most of the lyrics, Musical richness
The Bad: Some terribly predictable lyrics, Title, A little short.
The Basics: Heather Nova's latest album 300 Days At Sea might have a title that is all wrong, but is a very cool album about growth and movement.

[This is, for all intents and purposes, a review in two parts. Immediately after my first listen to Heather Nova's  "300 Days At Sea ," I had so much I wanted to write down, which pretty much violates how I review musical works. So, I decided to do all of the false starts, then write the review that the album deserves. Enjoy!]

There is something instantly daunting for me going into my first listen of Heather Nova's new album 300 Days At Sea. The day I received the album, I also got a note on Heather Nova's Facebook page about my review of South where the artist (or her people) urged me to check out the new album and review it instead of dwelling upon ten year-old material. When I do my first listen to an album, I eliminate all distractions, light, sound and other, lay on my back and prepare myself to listen. Then, I play the album and I let myself get immersed in it. Unfortunately for 300 Days At Sea, while I did my first pure listen, Heather Nova's music on the album prevented me entirely from keeping a clear head, instead filling it with thought after thought after thought and the energy of the album made it difficult to lay still for the fifty and a half minutes of the album's runtime.

For those who might not read my many, many reviews, I am a bit of a Wonder Woman fan. I've been assembling my own ideal Wonder Woman film from the ground up, as is evidenced by my argument that only Anne Hathaway could fill the role (check that out here!). After my first listen to 300 Days At Sea, I am absolutely convinced that whatever Wonder Woman work makes it to television or theater next, there is only one song that ought to be the theme song in the promotions, opening credits or throughout the film: Heather Nova's "Higher Ground." If that song isn't the ultimate Wonder Woman anthem, I don't know what is, though several of the songs on 300 Days At Sea work for creating a strong anthem for a powerful female protagonist.

The name 300 Days At Sea conjured in my mind the idea of drifting and peace and that's the real mindfuck of Heather Nova's new album. The album is the first one where it seems Heather Nova has truly discovered the bass. The bass is the dominant undertone on at least nine of the album's twelve songs and that makes it a far more movement - action - oriented album than anything the title might suggest. So, the first obvious strike against 300 Days At Sea is that for possibly the first time, Heather Nova has completely misnamed her work and leaves her listeners utterly unprepared for the powerful, inspiring, anything-but-drifty, album which she has now unleashed for whomever might be able to hear it.

[And now, the real start, after the requisite eight listens to an album I usually demand before I actually review a musical work!]

Fuck anyone who says solar power isn't the wave of the future! Heather Nova's new album, 300 Days At Sea boasts in the liner notes that it was made using all solar energy. Energetic, deep and often clever, 300 Days At Sea, therefore, makes the powerful argument that solar power is worth the investment! But for American audiences, we'll have to wait. For our anniversary (27 months!) my wife imported 300 Days At Sea and it is a crapshoot yet again as to whether or not Heather Nova's latest album will actually find a release in the United States (her last four - I count The Sorrowjoy - have only been available overseas).

300 Days At Sea is pleasantly ambitious and is enough to remind listeners why they fell in love with Heather Nova's works to begin with. But almost entirely absent from the new album are the musing, wandering ballads of Storm and The Jasmine Flower. 300 Days At Sea is a reminder that Heather Nova rocks and those imagining that 300 days at sea would be quiet and lazy, Nova upsets the preconception with her most active album in years.

With a dozen tracks occupying 50:31 on the single c.d., 300 Days At Sea is very much Heather Nova's feelings on where she is now. All songs were written by Heather Nova and she provides the lead vocals on each track. Nova is also credited with the drawings in the album's liner notes, the acoustic guitar and pianowork and the album is co-produced by her husband, Felix Tod. This is entirely, then, Nova's musical vision.

And it's better than 90% (or more) of what is currently on the radio and it is hard to imagine how adult contemporary and pop-rock stations (if they even still exist in the States) could not fall in love with "Higher Ground." But the album is not the flawless masterpiece one might hope. Fortunately, there is enough to make it easy to recommend that any audiophile will want to import it as soon as possible.

The first real plus is Heather Nova's voice. Almost entirely unproduced, Heather Nova's vocals on 300 Days At Sea stands out as one of the most naturally beautiful sounds on Earth. Clear and crisp on "Do Something That Scares You," on "Everything Changes," Nova's voice is soprano and melodic, the perfect embodiment of female vocal form. But what struck me is how Nova continues to master the emotion in her lyrics through her voice. On "Turn The Compass Round," when she sings about wanting to be home, there is such pure longing and anguish in her voice that it becomes the very definition of those words.

Musically, 300 Days At Sea reaffirms that Heather Nova is creatively alive and growing. While almost all of the songs have an energy to them that has been lacking since Redbird or before, 300 Days At Sea is a true return to rock-pop form. Heather Nova bangs the keys and strums the chords on the guitar to make new tunes that will keep listeners humming for months. "Until The Race Is Run" and "Higher Ground" easily get stuck in one's head and "Stay" ends the album in such a way that it both leaves one wanting more and blends perfectly into the beginning of "Beautiful Ride" when one has the album on a continual loop.

Lyrically, 300 Days At Sea is hit-or-miss and that is what keeps the album from being Nova's third perfect album of her career. Like the musical accompaniment that hints toward movement and growth, most of the songs on 300 Days At Sea are anthemic, heroic works that are about change. So, while Nova muses with questions like "Why do I / Follow this heart of mine / Risk my life / Follow it every time?" she tells musical journeys that do more than just ask the question, she has the poetic voice answer with actions: "I can pull you from the wreckage / I can save your life / I can bring you what you need, / I can make it alright" ("Higher Ground"). And that sense of action and change is wonderful.

As is her habit, Nova comes close to the folk tradition of musical storysongs on 300 Days At Sea. "Do Something That Scares You" is not a fortune cookie advice song. Instead, it is a musical story with a whole beginning, middle and end, starting with the protagonist meeting ". . . this woman coming towards me, all heat and haze, but with a smile like a river that swept me up." Nova draws in the listener with likable musical characters to impart her wisdom and it works beautifully, especially with her voice.

But even her voice and great messages cannot save lyrics that are less than what they ought to be. On two or three songs, Nova uses some cheap, obvious rhymes that are below the talents of the woman who wrote "Truth And Bone." Indeed, my ears piqued up when I heard the slower music to "Everything Changes" after four tracks with pounding bass. But my eager ears led me to wince almost as quick to the lines "Everything changes, changes for the good / Even the pain hurts like it should / Everything moves, shadows to light / Heart becomes whole / When you give up the fight" ("Everything Changes"). Simple, predictable rhymes - "hate"/"weight," "heart"/"start" - dilute the profound message that Nova has to say.

But even that is nowhere near enough to sink 300 Days At Sea. Instead, this is a triumph for Heather Nova and one well worth importing. For those who might not yet have heard the music of Heather Nova, this album about growth and finding peace is a good one, a nonthreatening entry into the poetics, music and emotionalism of one of our generation's greatest musical treasures.

The best track is "Higher Ground," the low point is the less memorable "The Good Ship 'Moon.'"

For other Heather Nova album reviews, please be sure to check out:
Live From The Milky Way
The Jasmine Flower


For other music reviews, please check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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