Friday, September 22, 2017

album review: 'choir of the mind' by emily haines and the soft skeleton

So I'm a little stunned there was as much interest from my patrons in this project as there is - a primarily piano-driven side project of a Canadian indie pop rock singer who has never really crossed over to the states, with her last album in this side project coming over a decade ago.

Okay, let's back up. For those of you who don't know, Emily Haines is the frontwoman of Metric, an indie pop group that had a remarkable amount of success around the turn of the decade before hitting a snag with their 2015 record Pagans In Vegas - which really did deserve more attention than it got, because I think the satire went over too many heads. But it didn't produce the same singles and Canadian indie success, so I'm not really surprised Emily Haines wanted to step back towards solo work, especially as she already contributed to the Broken Social Scene album released earlier this year. Now I went back to listen to that last Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton record, and... well, it was alright enough. If you put it up against the piano-driven indie acts of the mid-2000s, I could see this standing out a bit thanks to the trip hop elements around the edges, but I was never wowed by the writing and you do need that to be on point if you're playing in this solo style. Never quite experimental or dark enough beyond some clever turns of phrase, it had the feel of a side project, and thus it's not surprising that Metric was the breakout act here. But hey, a few of my patrons wanted me to cover this, so what the hell: how is Choir Of The Mind?

Okay, so here's the funny thing: this record took a while to grow on me properly, because on the first two or three listens the flaws were outweighing any of the strengths I could find... which was more than a little frustrating because I like Emily Haines as a songwriter and this is the sort of minimalist side project that I often end up respecting more than liking. And then eight listens later it clicked, and while those flaws are still there, the best moments more than compensate and end up adding up to a pretty great record. A comparison I made on Twitter was Tori Amos-lite, but I think what might be closer is a split between Imogen Heap and Regina Spektor, which for me is only a positive here!

But just so we're clear, I want to get the more obvious flaws out of the way first, and most of them circle around composition and production. Now admittedly when you have such a bare-bones set-up - piano, a bit of percussion typically coming through in a kickdrum or cymbal, occasionally a bit of acoustic accent or thrumming bass - there just isn't much to criticize in terms of arrangement, but I do think the production at points can feel a tad too polished. Oh don't get me wrong, when it comes to Haines' expressive balance between husky and clear tones - and that's not counting the gorgeous multi-tracked arrangements, and we'll come back to those - the clarity is often a boon, but I found myself wishing the tone of that ancient piano felt a bit more weathered, or that the blending picked up a little more texture overall. And you notice it mostly because there are a lot of songs here that run comfortably around four and a half, five minutes, and unless your melody evolves or you bring in more instrumental layers for a crescendo, some songs can start to feel a bit repetitive, especially when the writing doesn't really change either. Now in some cases it can be excused: 'Legend Of The Wild Horse' has a hook with a piano line that does enough interesting things to stay fresh no matter how many times it's repeated for me, or the kickdrum anchoring against the misty layers of 'Minefield Of Memory' with an intricate cascading piano line, but even where the guitars come in on 'Fatal Gift' and 'Statuette' I find myself not as drawn to the arrangement, where it feels a little too meandering for its own good. And that's before you get cases like 'Strangle All Romance' and 'Wounded' and especially 'Irish Exit' where the delivery and harmonies are so damn good you could easily see them running longer! 

But overall it contributes to a pretty impressive - if a tad too polished - set of compositions with strong melodies and a generally misty feel as elements ebb in and out against the cloud of vocals - sometimes quite literally, like on 'Perfect On The Surface', where it literally sounds like some is walking up to the song before trudging away at the end. The larger question comes around what this record is about, so let's talk lyrics and themes. Now one element that I've found persistently frustrating with Haines in comparison with many of her singer-songwriter peers is her choice of language: even with Metric she might code her message but the language always feels remarkably straightforward... which for me often leads to the feeling I should get it more quickly than I often do. That was the big reason I wanted to give this time to really sink in, and I'm glad I did, because despite my personal preference for a little more detail in the poetry, there is a core to this record, which Haines has described as an exploration of feminine strength. And what I like is how she bends around traditional archetypes in this scene: there's vulnerability but it shows the measured consequences and the maturity to ground it; there's inner strength but not cynicism, a record where the repeating choruses become mantras in their own right to drive away projections both driven by society and by her own mind. Now some can feel a little obvious: 'Fatal Gift' targeting the constant strain of grinding capitalism is effective but on the nose, as was 'Perfect On The Surface' in shattering the surface of the 'sit still, look pretty' paradigm for women to harvest something even more beautiful. And while I did like the existentialist musings behind the title track - contextualized through a reinterpretation of Savitri: A Legend And A Symbol by Sri Autobindo - as she crystallizes what that artistic process means to her, the song does run long and I found 'Siren' and 'RIP' got to the core much more effectively - chasing a sound and connection she might never find in a desire to be known and loved... and yet even if it takes her to the brink, she has brought an audience into her life that she dearly wants to provide some vestige of satisfaction or relief.

And yet this record hits its stride when - like fellow Canadian frontwoman Mish Way on White Lung's last record Paradise - she takes feminist text and digs into the crannies. I loved the playful minimalism and sincerity behind 'Strange All Romance' where she suggests the space to intensify the growing attraction, or on both 'Wounded' and 'Legend Of The Wild Horse' she shows how running wild to please something or someone diminished her, which creates the interesting paradigm where boundaries were set and she feels all the stronger, an equal in this relationship. Or take 'Nihilist Abyss', a song where she desperately wishes the feelings for someone would fade as if it never happened... competing with the realization that she's wishing that love had never happened instead of dealing with very real pain. It's one of the reasons why 'Minefield Of Memory' clicked for me: it's not a song bathing in nostalgia so much as finding peace with the mistakes of one's past. Granted, like Mish Way this also means Haines can get into territory that's uncomfortable like 'Statuette', where she highlights a guy who treats women dismissively because of his power as an artist - which on some level she is drawn to as his presence reinforces that internal voice that he's better than her - but Haines then includes 'Irish Exit' to deliver at least a thematic resolution to that arc - she sees and feels the old attraction, but she has enough awareness about herself and him than she can make her graceful escape. Again, mature and lived-in, but not cynical.

And honestly, that emotional core when combined with such great melodies is enough. I'll be straight with you, I was expecting to blow through this as just an overlong and indulgent side project heavy on balladry, but what I found instead was a meditative, frequently beautiful album where Emily Haines explores those mingled inner voices and finds, if not peace, at the very least some clarity. And while there are moments of indulgence, they're not enough to overshadow a record with phenomenal vocal arrangements, inventive but accessible melodic progressions, and writing to match. Solid 8/10, definitely a recommendation, I know this is going to fly under the radar of entirely too many folks, but if you're a fan of Metric or singer-songwriters like Regina Spektor or Tori Amos or Imogen Heap, you'll dig this, so definitely check it out!

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