Friday, May 16, 2014

Heather Nova Meets Ingrid Michaelson For A Fine Frenzy’s Pines!

The Good: Voice, Lyrics, Decent musical diversity.
The Bad: No truly great tunes, Derivative sound and feel.
The Basics: A Fine Frenzy channels more established/popular singer-songwriters on Pines, which is not bad . . . though it is disturbingly derivative.

Lately, I have been listening to my iPod at work. I work long nights, long shifts, and I have just rediscovered my whole digital music collection, which was pretty exciting for me (it makes mind-numbing work that less unpleasant!). Having just made it through my whole music collection, I find myself in an interesting place to evaluate the new music that comes my way. The latest new (to me) album to cross my desk is Pines by A Fine Frenzy. I was an early buyer of the debut album by A Fine Frenzy (before “Almost Lover” was charting as a single or anyone truly knew about the group (artist), but A Fine Frenzy albums have been unfortunately hit or miss for me. Still, I am always eager to listen to and review new music and Pines seemed like an ambitious concept album to me.

Unfortunately, Pines does what a third album ought to do (which is show some musical growth from the artist), but it does so in a poor way. Every track on Pines sounds like it could have come from some other artist. Specifically, A Fine Frenzy sounds like Heather Nova and Ingrid Michaelson on the songs on Pines. While I could stand to have a “lost Heather Nova album” that I have the thrill of discovering, Pines does not back up the Nova-esque vocal force on songs like “The Sighting” and “Sadseasong.” Similarly, while there are moments that A Fine Frenzy sounds like Ingrid Michaelson, those moments are not match Michaelson’s sense of whimsy or humor even as they occasionally get her sense of pep. The result is an album that is likely to please and impress A Fine Frenzy fans, but those who have a broader appreciation of modern female singer/songwriters are likely to be left with a more lukewarm reaction.

With thirteen songs, clocking out at 67:42, Pines is very much the creative vision of Alison Sudol (A Fine Frenzy). Sudol wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks on the album, in addition to providing all of the lead vocals. Sudol plays piano or guitar on each of the songs. While Sudol did not produce Pines, the fact that it is a concept album she wrote makes it hard to argue that this was not the work she intended to release into the world.

Vocally, Alison Sudol loses all distinction of her own on Pines. Often produced to sound just a touch quieter than her instruments, Sudol has her usual incredible range, though she tends to stay in the soprano range on Pines. It was utterly unsurprising for me to learn that Pines was recorded live because on many of the softer, quieter, tracks there is a hollowness to the vocals, like the hint of an echo, that puts an auditory drag on Sudol’s vocals. Here is where the album is most derivative. Sudol sounds like Ingrid Michaelson on “Avalanches” and “Sailingsong.” Each time she carries her highest notes for a few moments, most notably on “Pinesong,” Sudol sounds like Heather Nova. Unfortunately, she does not sing as articulately as either of those artists, so it took me a good three listens to catch each of the lines. Also a detraction to Pines is how Sudol uses the backing vocals on songs like “Now Is The Start” where it sounds like she is being accompanied by a multitude of small children . . . which does not fit her sound or target demographic.

Most of Pines is composed of slower, contemplative songs. There is a narcoleptic quality to the pianowork from Sudol on Pines, as if she is just noodling through the album. This would not be so bad, save that after eight spinnings of Pines, I do not find myself humming any of the tunes and I don’t think I could pick a single song off Pines if it were being played as musak (by contrast, I was thrilled the first time I recognized “Almost Lover” as musak and I can still recall the tune to “Bomb In A Birdcage,” despite it being years since I last heard it). The album is dominated by piano, guitars, with significant back-up from lighter strings and the occasional chime. Much of the album sounds like one of Sophie B. Hawkins’s lesser-known tracks. Radically different is “Sailingsong,” which uses a lot of percussion and has an up-tempo beat. Like “They Can’t If You Don’t Let Them,” which has more ominous instrumentation, “Sailingsong” wakes the listener up with its more dynamic sound . . . before the subsequent tracks put the listener back to sleep!

Pines is something of a concept album, of a physical and emotional journey across a remote landscape. Sudol has something to say on Pines, even if her vocalizations of her own words do not always make it as clear as it ought to be. In fact, Sudol drowns out some of her most important lines on the album with a Fiona Apple-like rage on “They Can’t If You Don’t Let Them.” Amid crescendos and some of the album’s only drumwork, Sudol sings “Fog and fears and a mouth full of hot tears, / Can drown that voice sent to guide you. / And wicked tongues with their hooks, / And their ice blood, / Can wake the demons inside you. / Doubt will creep through the windows as you sleep, / Setting in like a cold, cold front. / Your hands go numb and your stomach doubles up. / And you think, was I happy once?” (“They Can’t If You Don’t Let Them”), which is a decent set of lines.

Alison Sudol is an impressive poet on Pines. With lines like “. . . you never know where you’re going to go / When the anchor lifts, oh, lifts / Pry my fingers off / Loosen the deathly grip / You can’t be tethered to a ghost / To a memory / You’ve got to swim” (“It’s Alive”), Sudol illustrates that she has something to say and she has a decent ability to say what she wants. Sudol creates a vivid sense of emotion and has moments of wonderful imagery on Pines (assuming one is able to stay awake for them)!

Melancholy and mellow, Pines drifts listlessly from track to track, broken up by cacophanic reminders that Sudol has the ability to make decent pop-rock music until it ends as erratically as it began. While the album does not hold together very well (I recommend not listening to it while on a long trip!), it is not terrible by any means. But, having listened to it now eight times, I am utterly unsurprised it did not grow A Fine Frenzy’s base; Pines is, primarily, unmemorable and indistinct, which makes it impossible for me to recommend.

The best track is “Avalanches (Culla’s Song)” and the most of the rest of the album is auditory mush, so it’s hard to truly pick a low point.

For other works by A Fine Frenzy, be sure to visit my reviews of:
One Cell In The Sea
Bomb In A Birdcage
Oh Blue Christmas (EP)


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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