The Good: Great vocals! Wonderful lyrics, Some of the reinterpretations, Good mix of Nova’s body of work, Duration
The Bad: Some of the interstitials, One or two less successful reinterpretations
The Basics: Heather Nova’s new “acoustic session,” Live In Cologne 2/26/2014, is a decent mix of live versions of songs from across her career and makes for a generally solid album!
Late last year, I was introduced to a pretty awesome website by my love of the musical artist Heather Nova. The site is PledgeMusic.com and it is a place where musical artists who no longer have the support of big music studios are going to get their new works funded and produced by their fans by offering presales and exclusive merchandise. As much as I love the idea, even helping to fund Heather Nova’s forthcoming album could not get me a copy of her poetry book The Sorrowjoy, which I have long coveted. What it did get me, in addition to physical and digital copies of her next album, are two “acoustic session” recordings. I put “acoustic session” in quotes because on her first one, Live In Cologne 2/26/2014, Nova is accompanied by a synthesizer on “Avalanche” so while it is a recording of a live event, it is not entirely acoustic. Moreover, there are some vocal alterations that make it hard to consider Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 an acoustic album (most notably the reverb elements on “Winterblue And Walking Higher”).
That said, there is not a lot to not like about Live In Cologne 2/26/2014. Heather Nova is clearly rewarding her loyal audience by providing them with an impressive experience and her vocals are chilling in an “acoustic” live setting (the first concert I ever attended, Heather Nova performed a very rock and roll set with a very different sound to it!). And Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 is a decent mix of works from Heather Nova’s career from Oyster through her forthcoming album (Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 has one song, “The Archaeologist,” which has not been released on any other works). Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 is a remarkably melancholy experience and Nova picked a selection of some of her moodiest, saddest songs for fans to kill themselves by, er, tide themselves over until her new album. “Paper Cup” is very much the mood, feel and sound of the songs on Live In Cologne 2/26/2014.
With nineteen songs coming out with almost two hours of music, Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 is very much a value and it is quite indicative of the talents of singer-songwriter Heather Nova. Nova provides all of the lead vocals (rather annoyingly, she has to prompt her accompanying vocalist on “Fool For You”) and the tracklist is made up entirely of songs she wrote. She, presumably, played instruments on each song. Given than Nova herself is releasing Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 directly, one suspects that she was involved in its production, if not its engineering and mixing.
Instrumentally, Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 is quite a bit more diverse than most live albums. Nova might not use electric guitar on the album the way she does on her studio works, but the acoustic guitar is not alone on this album (Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 does not sound like “one woman and a guitar” as so many solo female artists can). There is a beautiful and impressive harmonica part that opens “Fool For You” and the combination of guitar, piano, cello and vocals on many of the songs gives them a rich sound.
Vocally, Nova is playing entirely in her soprano range on Live In Cologne 2/26/2014. Perhaps all that is more impressive than Nova holding some of the notes that she does is that she gets through such a long set at such a high register. While “I Wanna Be Your Light” is equally impressive on this live version as it is on her studio recordings, the fact that she gets to a new recording of “Storm” and is still hitting the high notes and still can hold the long notes is impressive.
Nova’s vocals are accompanied by someone she identifies as Arnoff. Sadly for a permanent recording like this one, their banter is just horrible. Arnoff sounds, sadly, like a flake and Nova doesn’t sound like she is quite into what he is pitching, so their recorded conversations as he tunes the cello plays poorly on Live In Cologne 2/26/2014. It sucks the listener out of the experience and makes the listener question Heather Nova’s touring choices (the fact that he pats himself on the back after just blowing coming in on a song makes him seem like a poor accompanist to someone as professional and artistic as Heather Nova.
The big question for fans of Heather Nova who have not seen her perform lately (i.e. all of us in the U.S.!), is “what does her new track say for the potential of the new album?” The unique song on Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 is “The Archeologist” and Nova wrote it about her trip to Pompeii. I can respect that; going somewhere and being overwhelmed by the emotion of the history of a place. Pompeii can be a musically powerful subject, as is evidenced by the Dar Williams song “This Was Pompeii.” Unfortunately, “The Archeologist” does not quite rise to such heights of poetry. Nova seems to want to do a similar thing to Williams in writing a song that mirrors the destruction of Pompeii with the end of a relationship, but she is less successful. While she starts with the beautiful poetry of “Every day is like Pompeii / Buried undera ash and clay / Wishing we could push up push up / Through to the end / Every little piece of us / Thinking of the way it was / Earth has got to give way someday” (“The Archeologist”), the song is not maintained with a consistency to make it one of her better songs. There are weird perspective changes in the song like “I’ll be the archeologist / You just have to put your faith in me” (“The Archeologist”) which do not fit the more abstract lines about Pompeii and a couple working together. Hopefully, the new album will more in her fine tradition than “The Archeologist” indicates.
That said, Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 is also plagued by an arrangement issue. Heather Nova knows how to end an album. Seriously, she has incredible, epic closing songs that finish her albums like she was writing a definitive closing-credits song for a movie. Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 includes “Stay” and “Fool For You” which ended two of Nova’s albums and they come up in the middle of the recording, which just leads to an anticlimax for the listener. “Truth And Bone” gets pushed to near the end and it is a rare thing for me to hear Nova perform “Truth And Bone” and for me not to rave about it. It is such an amazing song, but on Live In Cologne 2/26/2014, Nova performs it in such a listless way. There is no spark, no passion in her presentation of it. Nova clearly still has passion for some of her older works; “Island” and “Avalanche” sound absolutely amazing in this recording.
On the balance, Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 is a worthwhile live album and one that will tide fans of Heather Nova over (those who haven’t yet, should go to Pledgemusic and support her soon-to-be-released album by buying the Acoustic Downloads!), but it illustrates a narrow, moody range of one of the world’s best singer-songwriters. While it works, for the most part, it is not flawless and it might work against getting fans to show up for live performances (the back and forths with Arnoff are that bad). It is enough, though, to renew the faith fans have and to whet their appetite for what comes next!
The best track is “Higher Ground” and I was not wowed by “Winterblue And Walking Higher” (presented on Live In Cologne 2/26/2014 as a single song that transitions from one to the other).
For other Heather Nova album reviews, please be sure to check out:
Live From The Milky Way
The Jasmine Flower
300 Days At Sea
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for a listing of the reviews from best work to worst!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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