Friday, July 6, 2012

album review: 'down to the river' by monica munro

Short version: an indie folk/jazz singer/songwriter that you've likely never heard of, but who you definitely should be listening to. Strong points go to her excellent delivery, clever songwriting, and a few surprise stand-outs that elevate her above the usual conventions of her genre. Definitely one you should check out.

Those of you who actually read these reviews (and I have no idea who you are, by the way) are probably a bit perplexed by this name and album. Hell, after the shouty-then-sullen behaviour in my Linkin Park review (which is ironic, come to think about it), you probably I expected I was going to review Metric's new album before I went after Chris Brown.

And indeed, I am planning on taking on Metric's Synthetica next time before I pummel Chris Brown's Fortune, but this is a rather different review for me for a number of reasons, and while I will be just as characteristically harsh, I ultimately want to walk away from this review with a smile on my face (so make of that what you will).

So, last weekend, I acquired this album, Down To The River, without leaving my house. And by that I meant I purchased it from the artist herself when she came by my door. Yes, Monica Munro is a local artist, who was selling her album door-to-door, and I have to tell you, I do respect an artist that devoted to her craft. I mean, have you ever tried selling something door-to-door in this day and age, particularly music? Hell, I'm in a published anthology (Horror, Humour, and Heroes: Volume 3, buy now on Amazon, beat the rush) and I probably wouldn't go door-to-door trying to sell my books. But I get it - you have to build buzz however you can in that difficult industry, and I truly respect her courage here. 

And it's true that I don't pay enough attention to local indie music, which is something I'm resolving to change, but as it is, I figured I would take a close look at this album here and see if I could create some additional buzz and interest (incidentally, any musicians/music promoters who read this - if you want me to write reviews in my typical style of your material, don't hesitate to recommend something). 

The first thing I really noticed when taking a peek at Monica Munro's blend of rock, folk, and jazz is that the production is significantly better than most independent efforts, with good mixing, layering, and quality. It gives the album a certain polish right out of the gate that I found appealing, particularly considering this genre typically isn't my cup of tea.

Yeah, I'll admit it, and anybody who read my review of Regina Spektor's What We Saw From The Cheap Seats already knows that I find the 'white chick with piano' genre (or as another source once deemed it, 'secretary rock') generally unappealing. What tends to set me off about artists like Lily Allen and Regina Spektor and Natasha Bedingfield is that there's a blend of artless pretensiousness and smugness that isn't earned. Simply put, they just aren't as interesting or profound as they tend to think they are, and most of them behave like they're far smarter than everyone else in the room (which I'll deem the 'Hermione effect'). 

Fortunately for everyone, Monica Munro really doesn't have that effect. Compared to Regina Spektor's tiresome childishness and Lily Allen's bratty teenager persona, Monica Munro actually sounds grown up, her smooth alto effortlessly through the mix of covers and original songs on this album. Her voice reminds me of Candice Night's (lead singer of Blackmore's Night, a folk rock band which is awesome and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong) in a great way, able to convey a wide variety of emotions while still maintaining a smooth maturity. Her voice is a natural fit for the jazz songs on the album, and her cover of 'Fever' is a highlight, as she brings a good sultriness to the track, a great alternative to Michael Buble's loud, brassy delivery.

No, Monica Munro is subtle, and the little things are what should be appreciated on this album. If anything, her attempts at broader, more simple material is where I think the album is weakest. The reggae-esque 'Only You' is the weakest track on the album simply because my brain turns off whenever that particular style kicks in, but her lyrics lend the song a bit of class and dignity. 

The lyrics are another thing I will compliment, because they're clever without being insufferable (take notes, Regina Spektor). The rhymes schemes are simple and elegant, and while sometimes the lyrics are a bit clumsy (the first track, 'Sunrise Again', is the biggest culprit here), overall they're surprisingly effective. It also helps that Monica Munro has a real gift for making her songs approachable and easily likeable - her song 'Recipe For Love' is corny and a little silly, but I still enjoy it because her delivery is understated and more mature. Do I wish that she'd sing a little louder and put a little more fervour and energy into her vocals? Well, a little bit, but she does quiet and sultry and smooth incredibly well and it fits her songs, so I don't see why she would.

In terms of lyrical content, I'll also give Monica Munro points for avoiding the common 'break-up song' trap that many songwriters in this genre fall into. Instead, there's a variance of content, although most are concentrated in the 'love song' variety. But that's good, because Munro also gives a variety of delivery styles, from emotive folk to sultry jazz, all with the smooth practiced delivery of an artist with significantly more experience and class than most.

But as I said, the things I like the best about Monica Munro is her subtlety, because it makes some songs that I'd consider only average really stand out. 'Borrowed Time' sounded like a generic folk-country song at first, but the intelligence in her lyrics and the genuine emotion in her delivery really make the song a standout. 'Fear of Flying' is a song that has layers and complexity, and once again was supported by lyrics that reinterpreted common cliches into an interesting song. And 'Water's Too Wide' is easily my favourite song on the album, because it takes her smart, emotive delivery and couples it with great instrumentation and surprisingly deep lyrics.

Are there problems with this album? Yes, but to be completely honest, they're minor. Her backing instrumentation is good but not great, and isn't always as interesting as her lyrics or delivery. There's also the real dichotomy between folk and jazz on this album - while Munro's voice is a natural fit for jazz and she sings the songs very well, I ultimately found the folk songs significantly more interesting. But then again, I like folk music more than jazz anyways, so that might just be me. Finally, as this is a debut I will cut her some slack, but I find it hard to label this album as anything incredibly special or mind-blowing. This isn't the fault of Munro, to be fair - I think if the instrumentation was a bit more diverse and the songs were a little more unconventional, her strong songwriting and great delivery would be a good fit. As it is her debut album, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt here. If anything, she reminds me a bit of A Fine Frenzy, a folk/indie-pop singer who also has great delivery and hasn't quite crossed the line from 'damn good' to 'amazing' just yet (granted, A Fine Frenzy is quirky as all hell and Monica Munro is smart and mature and significantly more sultry, but you get my point).

Overall, I liked Down To The River. It's a strong debut from a good singer/songwriter, and I see serious potential here. I like her style, I really like her delivery, and I find her songwriting to be pleasantly deft and clever. Best of all (and perhaps the biggest triumph compared to most in her genre), I don't find her music boring. I'd like to see more experimentation and more instrumental diversity in the future, but overall it's a strong debut and I'm impressed. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more.

1 comment:

  1. Well, since you're wondering (or were, in 2012), I am an 19-year-old who is absolutely obsessed with music and who enjoys your more intellectual approach to music (well, USUALLY intellectual: Gotthard's Bang! anyone?) That or I'm a 87-year-old man with nothing better to do, take your pick