Alison Sudol, the singer songwriter of A Fine Frenzy with a fluttering voice and red hair, arose with 2007’s One Cell in the Sea. She carried with her a collection of pop songs soaked in pathos and fairytale and nature themes. This follow-up, Bomb in a Birdcage, aims to reveal an edgier and more versatile side of her, but it sputters because it leaves fundamental flaws in her music untouched.
Alison’s airy pop combines a 70s folk singer-songwriter style with bits of Coldplay and Tori Amos. It frequently drapes you in warmth, her music floating in the upper regions of your skull. On this album, she upgrades it with a faster feel and stronger beat. It comes off sounding more pop-rock and folk. “World Without” resembles Coldplay more than anything off her first record. However, songs like the mellow closer “Beacon” sound like her older works.
Unfortunately, her music still doesn’t blend well with her vocals. Alison’s singing is chirpy and breathy, but not distinctive enough to nest in your head. Her band doesn’t contribute sufficient drive or hooks to compensate, resulting in unmemorable songs. The lead single, “Blow Away,” is the only one that doesn’t automatically fade afterward. I like the joyous way she sings the track’s title, and the pulsing acoustic guitar line.
Most of the time, her band chokes listeners with too much atmosphere. Too many instruments are layered together, and it sounds jumbled. For instance, “What I Wouldn’t Do” is a simple country song that Alison could play on a street corner alone with a guitar, but it’s cluttered with an entire string section, whistles, hand-claps, piano, bass, and drums.
I’m not sure why Alison’s drummer and bassist play so loud. It doesn’t make her material rock, it makes it noisy. You can hardly hear her singing or the rest of the band with such complex tacky beats. Worse, they recycle the same rhythm which makes it even harder to tell songs apart.
Even with the studio goo, her songwriting continues to separate Alison from other young singers. Her emotional and heavily symbolic poetry may get exhausting, but she covers romantic subjects while avoiding any canned lines. On Bomb in a Birdcage, she excels at this again. Worrying about a long distance romance Alison sings, “I will discover whether birds of the summer fly in circles or just fly away.” But she stumbles in a couple of places. On “Swan Song,” she composes howlers like “How could the world have turned so ugly? I am dying. Could you touch me again?” She also experiments with dance pop on the painful “Electric Twist.”
Bomb in a Birdcage is not an improvement, but I liked a handful of songs such as “Beacon” and the folk tunes “Blow Away,” “What I Wouldn’t Do,” and “Bird of the Summer.” If Alison wants diversity in her music, that genre suits her better. More importantly, she needs to ensure her band and the sound engineer don’t show off so much.
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Alison Sudol makes a fine Disney-esque musical actress in her “Blow Away” music video.