Nothing is harder to review than pretty.
I know how to review clever, and epic, and fun, and heartbreaking, and disastrous. In fact, I sometimes have to watch myself, so I don’t use the same method of reviewing each of those twice. (I slipped up last week and reused a line from a prior Muse review. It’s a good line, though, so I’m oddly OK with it.) But when an artist’s goal is just to make the prettiest thing you’ve ever heard, I often just don’t know what to say about it. I slip into flowery language – it makes my heart sing out like a million choirs. Crap like that.
And if the album in question is pretty beyond words, I’m usually at a loss for them. Understandably so, I think, but that doesn’t help me tell you why you should hear them. “It’s lovely, I like it” just isn’t enough. So bear with me this week as I struggle to write about two of the prettiest records of 2012. If the following doesn’t convince you to pick these up, I’m sorry, but trust me that the failing is mine. If you’re a fan of undiluted beauty, you should buy both of these albums immediately.
* * * * *
It’s been a while since Beth Orton moved me.
Beth’s a British singer-songwriter with a remarkable voice – it simultaneously weighs down and lifts up the notes beneath it, if that makes any sense. She first made her mark by singing hooks in electronic pieces by William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, and she carried some of that beats-and-synths sensibility over into her wonderful solo bow Trailer Park. (Seriously, if you haven’t heard “She Cries Your Name” or “Galaxy of Emptiness,” you’re missing out.)
But it was her second record, the gorgeous Central Reservation, that truly showed off her skills. The few electronic numbers left shared the stage with hushed, acoustic stunners like “Blood Red River” and “Devil Song.” Simple and delicate backing, stepping into the wings and giving the voice the spotlight. And when given all that room to roam, Orton’s voice is nothing short of astonishing. She doesn’t engage in vocal acrobatics, and she’d never make it on American Idol, but there’s a power in her voice that draws from an unimaginably deep well.
The problem with her subsequent albums, particularly 2006’s Comfort of Strangers, was that the songs boxed her voice in. They were fine ditties, but they didn’t play to her strengths. I’m not sure I’ve listened to Comfort of Strangers more than twice in the past six years. By contrast, though, I’ve heard her new album, Sugaring Season, twice today, and a dozen more times in the past week. It’s an album that finds Orton resetting, remembering what makes her special, and truly showing it off.
And because of that, the album is unendingly beautiful. Most of these songs are uncomplicated things, based on revolving acoustic guitars. Opener “Magpie” sports a total of two chords, swapped back and forth, with Brian Blade’s drums and Eyvind Kang’s viola adding coloring. Right from the start, though, the focus is where it ought to be – on Orton’s vocals. Her repeated “what a lie, what a lie” is the record’s first pure delight, but far from the last.
“Candles,” for example, is a minor-key wonder, the strings and drums there to support an arresting vocal performance, the production adding hints of psychedelia. (Just listen to that cello bass line in the third verse.) “Something More Beautiful” ventures into jazz ballad territory, with a superb chorus that tests Orton’s limits. She pulls it off, though, and gallops back in for the repetitive yet delirious “Call Me the Breeze,” and the heart-rending “Poison Tree,” based on a poem by William Blake. (Yes, this is the kind of album that bases songs on poems by William Blake.)
The brief “See Through Blue” is the only thing here that could be described as playful, and it leads into a shimmering concluding trilogy that fully explores Orton’s capacity for beauty. Whether accompanied by a stark piano, an acoustic guitar or a full folk band, she gives everything to these last three songs, and they’re simple but fantastic. “State of Grace” is the perfect Beth Orton song, her rolling guitar supporting some lovely piano, drum and violin work as she sings of unconditional friendship.
And finale “Mystery” strips everything away but a low organ, a guitar, a violin and that voice, rising to the sky. “Alive, alive, alive, alive,” she sings, and as she does, you can’t imagine anything more beautiful. Sugaring Season is quick – it’s 38 minutes long – but it lingers, like the truest things, wrapping itself around you. It is the Beth Orton album that we Beth Orton fans have been waiting for, an album that once again showcases her talent for the unspeakably lovely.
* * * * *
And speaking of unspeakably lovely, there’s the new Hammock album.
For eight years now, Hammock has been making some of the most gorgeous music I’ve ever heard. The band is a collaboration between brilliant ambient guitarist Marc Byrd and production guru Andrew Thompson, and their work has been described as shoegaze, float music, dream pop, and all manner of other cloudy monikers. What they really do is this: they take sounds and make them infinite.
Hammock works with the same tools every band has at their disposal – guitars, keys, drums, strings, sometimes vocals. But in their hands, these sounds grow to incredible expanses, filling the sky and the space beyond. Byrd doesn’t play much, in terms of notes, but each note he plays sounds as big as the Pacific. And when they work in strings and trumpets, they’re the most massive, glorious strings and trumpets you can imagine. This is quiet music, on the whole, ambient and flowing, but it’s astonishingly loud quiet music.
With their fifth full-length, Departure Songs, Hammock has started thinking even bigger. It’s a two-disc affair lasting about 110 minutes, and its 19 songs are both a perfect distillation of what they do, and a sign that they’re evolving even further. Byrd’s guitar still stretches to the horizon, but there are more drums supporting it than ever before, more full string sections, and even a pair of almost-pop singles. When that first one, “(Tonight) We Burn Like Stars That Never Die,” arrives on its dirty synth bass line, it’s jarring, and when it unfurls into an absolutely crushing mass of sound, it’s electric.
And yes, there are lyrics on that and several other songs, a rarity for Hammock. Byrd’s wife, Christine Glass-Byrd, sings most of the words, and her voice is processed and layered into the wall of sound, a la shoegaze music of old. It’s possible to listen to all of Departure Songs in the background and miss the fact that there are vocals on here at all. Glass-Byrd sings wordlessly on “Awakened, He Heard Only Silence,” for example, but she sounds like another instrument in the echoing, cavernous beauty of the piece.
But I’m giving examples of Hammock playing around with their sound, when most of this album finds them refining and reveling in what they do best. “Pathos” is a perfect case in point. It opens with guitar chimes like ripples on a lake, before the miles-wide ambience creeps in. Drums propel the song forward, and for six more minutes, it’s simply heart-meltingly lovely, Byrd’s clean guitars like water drops on a frozen tundra. “Frailty (For the Dearly Departed)” is impossibly gorgeous, rising up on a synth piano figure and reaching the sky on grandiose strings.
Byrd and Thompson are meticulous about their soundscapes, carefully weaving them element by element. “Dark Circles” begins with a droning organ, then a rumble of percussion, before unfolding to its full magnificence. “We Could Die Chasing This Feeling” unfurls slowly, waves of cloud-like shimmer setting the scene before the drums, bass and guitar come shuddering in. By the four-minute mark, it’s immense, guitars cascading atop one another. After that, you need the two-minute break the formless “Glossolalia” offers.
Departure Songs ends with two perfect examples of what Hammock do so well. “(Leaving) The House Where We Grew Up” is perfect, a trembling bass line leading to a dreamlike guitar melody, which then covers itself like a blanket. And then the strings bring it to the next level – the song ends at six minutes because it just couldn’t get any bigger. And then “Tornado Warning” concludes things on a gentle note, Byrd strumming and Glass-Byrd singing beautifully. A cello melody, a slow fade to rain sounds, and it’s over.
I can’t say Hammock has reinvented themselves on Departure Songs, but they have delivered their best work. If you want to hear some of the prettiest, most soul-enlivening music being made today, you can’t do any better. Hammock’s music sounds bigger than our world’s ability to contain it, bigger than any words I could use to describe it. It’s infinite, and the only thing you can do with the infinite is try mightily to experience at least some small part of it. Here is your chance.
* * * * *
Keeping things short this time. Next week, a trio of solo albums for your listening pleasure. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.