"ONE CELL IN THE SEA," A Fine Frenzy (Virgin)
There's a duality involved in selling a potential cult-level artist, and the hype pushing A Fine Frenzy's debut "One Cell in the Sea" isn't as counterproductive as it might seem.
The group's leader, Los Angeles singer/songwriter Alison Sudol, appears to take her dense pop songs quite seriously. Yet even before the release, she was featured in Interview and Harp magazines in what looked less like expositions on her music and more like fashion spreads highlighting the 22-year-old's striking appearance. Sure, she gave lip service to literature and the like in the text of the features, but readers aren't as likely to remember that as they are her curly red locks and strikingly fair skin.
Sudol need not feel singled out for superficial treatment. Her obvious predecessor Tori Amos debuted in a similar manner.
But then, so did Vanessa Carlton ...
As long as Sudol has faith in herself, she'll be all right. And she's clearly in love with her own music and carefully walking the star-defining line between affecting and affected.
"One Cell in the Sea" is a collection of dreamy, dark-tinged songs that pack in fluffy, vast layers of instrumentation as a foundation for Sudol's intimate revelations and musings. Sometimes the air is too cloying and sometimes the lyrics are too banal for such grandiose treatment, but Amos certainly survived her comparable bouts of self-important narcissism.
Sudol's voice is a dulcet, dainty centerpiece, and when she avoids monkeying around with her enunciation, she's powerful. Strong cuts such as "You Picked Me" and "Hope for the Hopeless" build momentum to sweeping conclusions, while pretty melodies weave through the more subtle and somber strains of "Ashes and Wine" and "Last of Days."
Naturally the emotions are trumped up: Sudol presents herself as beaten down "to a whisper, can you hear me still?" on "Whisper," and on "Near to You" she unwisely tells a new love about her lingering affection for a past love, with the not-exactly-comforting observation, "Though he's gone and you are wonderful, it's hard to move on, yet I'm better near to you."
She'll surely learn to be more diplomatic in the future, and given the special vibe of "One Cell in the Sea," she could be destined for a long career.
Rating (five possible): 3-1/2
"SEASTORIES," Minnie Driver (Zoe/Rounder)
Minnie Driver's "Seastories" is more for fans of Minnie Driver than it is for fans of music.
To be sure, it's a pleasant listen. Driver was a singer before her acting career took off and landed her in films such as "Good Will Hunting" and "Grosse Point Blank." (She's currently on the TV series "The Riches" on the FX channel.) As a result, the languid "Seastories" rates above the standard music endeavor of an ego-driven actor.
The new release is a natural complement to her 2004 debut, "Everything I've Got in My Pocket." Both were produced by Marc "Doc" Dauer and written primarily by Driver. Both are easygoing, adult pop with a country/Americana edge sliding in by way of steel guitar and swaggering choruses. And both casually meander through well-worn formula, feature overlong songs and fail to register beyond the occasional shining hook.
Driver's a fine singer as she unhurriedly glides through the arrangements, her voice sometimes stripped down to an intimate rasp and other times enveloped in an annoying echo effect that unnaturally emphasizes its etherealness. She over-brands her songs with repetitions of refrains, too, but listeners won't likely feel manipulated in such a low-key setting.
Nothing is essential and nothing is particularly bad, but some "Seastories" moments linger more than others. Driver's testimony of pure devotion to her father on "London Skies" -- concluded with the line, "Some things stay immutable ... like love" -- has sweet resonance, while the mid-tempo "Beloved" (featuring Ryan Adams on guitar) and lilting "Sorry Baby" (featuring backing vocals by Liz Phair) have timeless charm.
However, the best track is the piano-based "How To Be Good," where Driver saunters and beguiles as she solicits a hug: "You've got two strong arms, I see/Can't you bring them around/Wrap them around me?"
Those looking for something fresh will find it difficult to fully embrace "Seastories," but the release is a suitable memento for those who are already fond Driver.
"OPEN," Spooky (Spooky.uk.com)
If the first disc of Spooky's "Open" isn't chill enough for you, the second is sure to make you shiver.
The U.K. duo of Charlie May and Duncan Forbes concocts a polished collection of "electronic soul" tracks for that first disc and then ices down those same songs into dubbed-out reinventions on the second disc.
It's not as if the songs are too hot on the first go around. May and Forbes splice the technically sleek, if remote and cheesy, vocals of singers Julie Daske and Celestine Gordon into a synthetic milange of syncopated beats and humming bass.
Cuts like "Belong" and "The River" percolate and gurgle, their churning fluidity sensualized by the airy vocals. Slower tracks such as "Strange Addiction" and "What Are We Waiting For?" elicit a duskier, mesmerizing atmosphere while the heftier rhythms and quicker tempos of "New Light" and "No Return" have more transparent appeal.
Still, the tracks don't contrast starkly with each other; instead, they work together to create a borderline-subliminal grind appropriate for a drowsy, relaxing backdrop.
The second disc is an aural deep-freeze by comparison. The untethered rendition of "Belong" earns its subtitle of "Echo Space Dub," while the modest nuances of trickery are excised from the original "What Are We Waiting For?" so it can be set adrift. Meanwhile, "New Light" is revamped twice on the second disc -- a dub version that amounts to little more than a reggae riff and a "slow motion" take that floats long notes into the cosmos.
The most noteworthy track on all of "Open" is the second-disc rendition of "Shelter," which is subtitled "Slow Phase." Although the version starts out as an inconsequential-seeming time killer with not much going on, an evocative shudder eventually works into the mix and hitches the song to a hypnotizing vibe. May and Forbes know they have something there and they milk it, extending the song beyond the 10-minute mark.
Listeners' appreciation for -- or tolerance of -- that specific track will be directly proportional to how open they'll be to "Open" in general.