Sian Alice Group | 59:59 (The Social Registry)

cd_sian-alice.jpgThis record feels alive, aware and somehow incredibly wise in its sonic reach.




Whenever I have the argument with my nieces or younger friends about the presumed "death of the album" in this "iTunes-iPod-iGotta adapt again" age we’re living in, I like to bring up recordings where listening to the whole thing is integral to the experience. You can’t get the full impact of works like, say, Radiohead’s OK Computer or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon if you only download a handful of songs. An album as a work of art—a complete, enveloping musical statement—is something that we old-fashioned music fans fight to preserve the sanctity of.

I’m adding the debut by London‘s Sian Alice Group as an example of a potent, start-to-finish listening experience, a disc you simply can’t splinter into chunks. It’s a recording of epic intimacy, a thoroughly unconventional, varied work that nearly defies categorization. Consisting of vocalist Sian Ahern, multi-instrumentalists Rupert Clervaux and Ben Crook, and violinist Sasha Vine (who also plays accordion and contributes backing vocals), the Sian Alice Group seems to be aiming for an organic blend of classical, ambient and pop, or the EADP sound (electro-ambient dream pop) that’s close to becoming its own genre.

59:59 (the running time) is eclectic, startling, and wonderfully fresh in its cumulative impact. It evokes those moments in life when you’re completely in tune with your feelings or fixated on some aspect of your environment, whether in nature or just sitting in your living room quietly thinking. There are evocative slivers of ambient music and longer, flowing/pulsing compositions that interweave together in a mesmerizing aural tapestry. On "As the Morning Light," Ahern sings the title repeatedly over a cleanly picked chord progression to beckon you into the gathering mood. But "Way Down to Heaven" then startles with a jarringly interesting descending minor third that establishes a somewhat sinister atmosphere, offset by an emotive vocal. For some reason, I thought of the Velvet Undeground here.

Two of Ahern’s finest moments come during the stellar tunes "Kirilov" and "When…" The former is a somber yet stately number in which Ahern enters a zone of impossible vocal fragility, the sort of achingly lovely intoning that most singers would never get near, because they’re too busy belting things out and showing off. Ahern’s emphasis on the delicate is truly laudable. "When" is another matter entirely, and it’s my favorite track on this remarkable record. After a misleading intro of clangorous dissonance, the band lays down a haunting, fingerpicked chord progression so hypnotic, that by the time Ahern’s flawless, nuanced vocal comes in, your emotional surrender is complete. "Loneliness that I love/Hope you find me somewhere," Ahern sings, inserting a beguiling pause between "some" and "where." There’s just something indescribable about this song…it’s landscape music, for thoughtful journeys to no particular place.

I must also single out the songs "Contours"—a highly original piece combining hypnotic drumming, Ahern’s sparkling perfect fifths in a high register, and a weird two-note, low-frequency sound in the foreground that sounds like an amplified crustacean’s breath or something — and "Motionless," which creates a palpable mood with a single chord and a Pagan drumbeat. And throughout the disc, there are short ambient instrumentals that keep deepening and varying the mood in unpredictable ways.

This record feels alive, aware and somehow incredibly wise in its sonic reach. The press release states that "59:59 manipulates elements of texture, pacing and timbre as if it is one sweeping composition." Indeed. The word "sweeping" is especially apt, as I’m swept away by the beauty and originality of the Sian Alice Group, who’ve made my favorite record of 2008 so far. A+ | Kevin Renick

RIYL: Rachel’s, Jessica Bailiff, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, meditating

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