Let's start from the end this time, agreed? Well, Fractography is
a great album.
I have to admit I was very surprised, since by now I'm so used at finding my
mailbox bursting with CDs that can only be defined as being mediocre, unoriginal,
shoddy, uninspired, and lacking any reason to exist (but wait: there's
also the option "All of the above"). And I hope readers will
forgive me for thinking that the "self-released" nature of this
CD could only make my suspicions more plausible.
it was funny to see that I knew all featured musicians, the one exception
being the artist herself. I've listened to the instrumental work of Tommy
Babin, bass, and Skye Brooks, drums, in many different contexts, and I
often liked their performances even when the music itself was not my favourite
cup of coffee (the most recent for instance of an item I reviewed when
it comes to Brooks being the album by Inhabitants
titled A Vacant Lot, released in 2010). Cellist and composer Peggy
Lee is one of my personal favourites, and I was glad to see her here, two
years after the release of New Code - released
under the name The Peggy Lee Band - where guitarist Ron Samworth,
also appearing here, had played so well.
After a few listening sessions I decided that the only name that came to my
mind when listening to Alicia Hansen was Emily Bezar. In truth, after many
listening sessions (in the course of four weeks) I changed my mind, with
the only exception of the album's penultimate track, If You Asked Me, where
those multiple vocals in a slow, pianistic ballad, so skillfully constructed
with such a great attention to dynamics still made me think of (US) Bezar.
But it's obvious that Hansen, who (provided I understood correctly) lives
in Vancouver, follows a path that we can call her own, where classical
influences (a lot), jazz influences (definitely more than a pinch), "Prog"
(but here one has to separate the compositional side from the production
work - we'll get to that in a moment), a skillful command of the keyboard,
and excellent vocals (she has a fine voice which doesn't need any particular
inclination in order to be appreciated) add up to a winning combination.
Babin's work is good, solid - as we all know, making others sound good is the
bass player's thankless job. Brooks gets more space, since drums here assume
an orchestral role with many different percussive timbres. Both Lee and
Samworth are intelligently featured, both in their ensemble work and in
tasty solo mini-episodes. Compositions are quite dense and complex (but
not really "difficult"-sounding!), the great variety in their
timbres and the mix work making the album appear longer than it really
is: eleven tracks, thirty-five minutes!
Some curious similarities? Alcoholic and Freighters would not sound out of
place on News From Babel's (hypothetical) third album. While the closing
track, Fractograph, featuring Cory Curtis's distorted bass, could be said
to remind one of some US New Wave groups from the 80s, just halfway between
Thinking Plague and Orthotonics (which is not really true - but it's the
best I could do!). I have no way to know what was of greater importance
for the instrumental climates here, if the compositions, the production
(by Aaron Joyce, who also did the arranging), or the engineering (by Jesse
Gander). The CD credits Hansen as playing the piano, while uncredited instruments
abound: the "harpsichord" on Under Hypnosis; the Hammond B3 +
Leslie which one can clearly hear on Apple Core and In Armies; the modulated
filter on Poison Tree; the electric piano(s) - a Wurlitzer? a Fender Rhodes?
a (Nord) synth? - on Fractograph; funny thing, the Hammond B3 on Clear
Enough reminded me of Hugh Banton on A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers by
Van Der Graaf Generator. There are also typical "Prog" strategies
such as the fast-forward tape (on Clear Enough), and the "splice" of
backwards drums (on Fractograph), as transitional elements
I hope readers won't get the impression of Alicia Hansen being a guest on her
own album! Quite the opposite, one can easily see her compositional personality
being expressed with great coherence in her vocal parts, which are often
multiple or choral. Variety notwithstanding, there's a unity of inspiration:
readers are invited to listen side-by-side to the first track here - quite
hesitant-sounding, almost somnambulistic - to the majestic-sounding "last
track on Side One". Almost paradoxically, Fractography could be defined
as the first album of a musician possessing great maturity.
Starting with what to me sounded like an arpeggio played on a prepared piano,
Under Hypnosis features a clear melody and a fine crescendo, with a good
use of the cello. Alcoholic has a frantic mood, propulsive drums, a fine
guitar solo with vocal counterpoint. Homesickness is a beautiful vocal
ballad featuring multiple voices and appropriate
"orchestral" backing. Another excellent track, Freighters features
a variety of snare drum timbres, and nice performances from cello and guitar.
Apple Core is a piano ballad in ¾ with a captivating melody, multiple
vocals, and a fine dialogue between cello and piano. The majestic-sounding
In Armies is the close of "Side 1": drums played brushes, fine
snare, and "choral" voices.
Poison Tree is a multi-themed, piano-led, mini-opera; there's a fine episode
for two cellos and Hansen's vocals. Coming next, Clear Enough sounds almost
naked, but let's check its fine compositional gesture; the solo vocals
are especially beautiful. Norway is another fine piano ballad with
"accordion" (a synth?), and a peculiar-sounding slow
"techno" "splice". If You Asked Me brings us back to
Bezar, and is the real album close. Coming after a tiny pause, the above-mentioned,
New Waver, Fractograph takes the album to its conclusion. A fine work, sounding
a bit bizarre, and quite fresh.
© Beppe Colli 2011
| Apr. 12, 2011