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Magnetic - Miriam Clancy (Album Review)


Magnetic - Miriam Clancy (Album Review)

Miriam Clancy at Mighty Mighty, 7 July 2011. Copyright © A Jenks 2011

Miriam Clancy at Mighty Mighty, 7 July 2011.
Copyright © A Jenks 2011

I don’t go to live music gigs. I’m a huge fan of well produced, polished music, presented in a crisp package, that I can enjoy in my own time and space. I have, however, been to one live gig. One artist I cared enough to see live and to meet.

This is a difficult review for me to write because the album is a very dear one to me, but my review of the gig was not taken well by the artist. While I don’t think I was unfair or inaccurate, I do regret the effect it had. If you know where to look, you can find that original review, but I am going to try to forget that history (and not draw it out again here) to do this review justice.

Magnetic is Miriam Clancy’s second album, released three years after her debut album, Lucky One. The two albums could not be much more different and yet both are unmistakably Miriam. Magnetic marked a new phase for Miriam, as she transitioned out of what she herself called “GarageBand-ville.” With an accomplished producer, Miriam has taken her fantastic range and applied it to a variety of styles with layers of panache and polish.

The Best is the first track on Magnetic. Proverbially, one is supposed to save the best to last, but is it the best track on the album? I’d say it’s a handy second place. Straight away the listener is introduced to the careful layering of instruments that is a strong feature of many tracks on this album. The song begins with what I feel as a restrained energy. From the first bar there is something pent up and, sure enough, it is eventually let loose in a classic Clancy crescendo. Miriam likes “light and shade” in a song and this one delivers that contrast in spades.

This track is one of a handful in my entire music collection that invokes chills down my spine, as Miriam hits that crescendo with a powerful delivery that she is so, so good at.

When I Do switches styles to a plucky pop number and was released as a single. While the energy doesn’t reach the levels of The Best, the tempo starts and remains high and the tone almost frivolous. Miriam’s vocals are almost… cheeky. Like all good singles, the chorus is catchy and leaps out of the surrounding verses. Miriam once again manages a diverse vocal delivery to fit the phase of the song, including her, perhaps trademark, breathy style.

If you thought there would be a distinct style to this album, you’d be disavowed of that notion by the time Join the Chorus begins, as yet another vibe is invoked.

It would be wrong to call this an acoustic track but I believe it would translate well to a simple vocal and guitar. A strong illustration of the layering approach, this track builds from a few plucky instruments to a rich tapestry of many more traditional ‘mainstream’ sounds, while the melody evokes a church singalong.

You Ain't the Worst Mistake I Made is another plucky number not unlike the early part of Join the Chorus but with a much evener delivery and some definite sass, as you might expect from the title. This track is, I think, one of the best showcases for Miriam’s voice, as she walks those vocals all over the map, bringing each line, each phrase, the tone it deserves.

Southern Cross is the song that, for me, beats out The Best for the actual accolade of the best song on the album. Perhaps you have to be a Kiwi (the person, not the bird^) to capture the full feeling of this song. I asked Miriam if she was away and homesick when it was written. In fact, she was at home and contemplating her move to New York. That fact makes the longing lyrics and sad timbre seem all the more poignant. I also asked if she had offered it to Air New Zealand as an anthem. Apparently, I was not the first to ask. I still think it’s perfect for them.

If I had to pick a single word to describe this song, it would be “stirring.” It makes me proud to be a Kiwi… and proud that someone as talented as Miriam is a Kiwi, too.

The liner track listing for Only Lonely One includes the words “For Dad.” I asked Miriam about this and all she said was that she included it so he would know it is about him (she didn’t think he realised at the time) and so that everyone else wouldn’t think it was “just another break-up song.”

This is a very personal story set to a simple guitar, though with some atmospheric backing and a noticeable echo on the vocals. There is probably no better example of the singer-songwriter art on this album. Although I make it sound simple, Miriam’s delivery and a catchy vocal melody make it very enjoyable.

Real Love brings back the higher tempo and layering in abundance. This is another song that makes use of vocal echo to good effect. Although it has an interesting arrangement, the structure of the track is quite straightforward with just a little escalation toward the end. Just not in the same magnitude of The Best.

The premise of Mixtape is cute, but not cutesy. Another simple arrangement, it explores various aspects of the love that goes into things you make for a loved one — that the love that goes into it should outweigh any less than perfect execution. Mixtapes, pictures, and poems that come from the heart are beautiful for what they mean, not what they are. This is, perhaps, the track that sits closest to the style of the previous album, Lucky One.

The title track of the album, Magnetic, is a great piece of pop art. While starting like a typical Clancy track, with those gorgeous and largely unchallenged vocals, the break after the second verse leads to a change in tone and that other Clancy classic tool — the escalation of energy (and noise levels). Magnetic, however, does not have a crescendo, instead holding the energy before an uncharacteristic fade-out.

If you’ve ever wondered about life in a semi-rural New Zealand town at a time when cities were starting to take the shine off the country lifestyle, then be sure to listen to Ghost Town, for it is about Miriam’s hometown. Home to Foxton Fries and (originally) Foxton Fizz, these days it is more known as a marker on one’s journey north from Wellington. Indeed, for those who like a good drive, the “Foxton straights” may eclipse them all.

If I have painted an unflattering picture of Foxton, Miriam isn’t going to up the ante. A simple song, Ghost Town has an energy level to match the subject, playing out like a story, in fact a documentary, set to music more than an epic song. As if some memory test, be sure to note how many boyfriends were had!

Another track to receive the full production treatment is Baby Blues, a song about Clancy’s son. The song tells of how having a son changed her life. Part introspective, part love story, this low tempo song is another that would translate well to acoustic despite a plethora of sounds being added in this version.

Another song that harks back, somewhat, to the style of Lucky OneThe Knife has some of the most alluring, and interesting, vocals backed with minimal instruments.

Once again, Miriam returns to a familiar formula with My Heart is a Traitor. Beginning with a quiet vocal over a simple piano line, the track slowly builds. Drums are added in the third verse, along with a bass, before the tempo picks up a little another couple of verses in and the vocals gain some extra punch. Before long, the vocals strain against the crescendo of instruments before both fade to an acoustic finish. Classic Miriam.

As an album, Magnetic is in many respects a clear progression from Lucky One, but there are a handful of standout tracks that really deserve attention: The BestMagnetic, and When I Do should be elevated as important markers in Miriam's career. Southern Cross... well... deserves a place alongside Hello Sailor's Gutter Black as a New Zealand anthem.

Magnetic is available on CD, the TIDAL Store (16/44.1kHz FLAC), and iTunes.

If you prefer streaming, Magnetic is also available on TIDAL Hi-FiSpotify, and Apple Music.

For Americans reading this, “Kiwi” is properly attributed to either a New Zealander, or the flightless bird of the ratite family. It is not correctly applied to a fruit, which is trademarked as “Kiwifruit.”


Chris Abrahams – Thrown (Album Review)


Chris Abrahams – Thrown (Album Review)

Music as a form of art is something that I feel is often overlooked. This is certainly the case in the modern era as music is always on, but seldom appreciated without distraction. It isn't until you come across a composition, such as Chris Abrahams' Thrown, that your belief of what music is, what it can be, and how it can be subjectively interpreted is challenged. It is only then that you truly begin to appreciate music as a form of performance art.

It would be fair to say that Thrown is not an album that I would actively seek out. Nor is it one that I would generally add to my collection. However, it is unique and I experience a very subjective series of emotional responses as I listen to the album. To be completely honest, I find much of the album to be unsettling, yet a concise description as to why escapes me. Therefore, dear reader, I implore you to join me on this incredibly unique experience as we traverse the album known simply as Thrown.

Upon first listen, you would be forgiven for wondering if Thrown is not merely the work of a slightly deranged individual. Well, that couldn't be further from the truth as Abrahams is a highly sought after pianist within the Australian music scene. While he is best known as a jazz pianist and session musician, his solo projects are largely experimental. While experimenting with sound is hardly revolutionary, the style applied throughout Thrown literally throws me as the composition is unlike anything I have heard before. It is, for lack of better terms, simultaneously beautiful and haunting.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised with the direction Abrahams took on Thrown as he is one-third of the experimental jazz trio, The Necks. If you find Thrown to be a little too confronting then you would likely appreciate the slightly less intimidating experimentation that can be heard on The Necks’ song Transparent Roads. As I listen to both recordings, in conjunction with each other, certain musical elements link the two, but it is clear that Transparent Roads would appeal to a more mainstream audience.

Beyond this comparison in style, the artwork is most certainly relatable to the music presented on the album. I’m not sure if one would look at this artwork and be compelled to buy it, sound unheard, but the absent and lost feeling that you get when you look at the artwork, definitely mimics the musical style in visual form. 

Bellicose starts with what can only be described as recorder hell. The pitch, while perfect in intent, is traumatising for the mind as there is no escape from this somewhat daunting and very disturbing soundstage. Interestingly, it is compelling and recorded so well that I don't feel the need to tear my headphones from my ears and throw them across the room. To me, this song is the epitome of subjective interpretation and I dare say each listener will have their own subjective response when listening to Bellicose.

Can Of Faces almost seamlessly continues, but it is very different to Bellicose and is sonically compelling. Approximately midway through the song, a sound that is akin to wind comes bellowing through your headphones, yet it is relaxing and peaceful despite the sound being felt in your middle ear. This song is, certainly in the second half, absolutely gorgeous and simply must be heard to be believed. There really isn't an adjective in the English language that can adequately describe the experience of listening to Can Of Faces.

Horsenel returns the listener to the eerie wind instrument that previously plagued the senses in Bellicose. Thinking for a moment about film scores, I can say with certainty that Horsenel would perfectly suit a film like The Blair Witch Project. It is unrelenting in its eeriness, yet I feel strangely compelled to continue listening. Could this be a sign of my slightly mad psyche or the sign that I’m listening to an artistic masterpiece?

Remembrancer has undertones of madness as the piano is frantically played in a repetitious manner. Despite that, it is strangely comforting. I have to be honest when I say that I feel Thrown is my most subjective review to date. I’m sure some of you will detest Remembrancer, and the entire album, but I’m subjectively not feeling disdain towards this piece of art. As it is so subjective, I would love to read your thoughts. Do you find yourself enamoured with Abrahams experimentation, or not? One aspect of Remembrancer that I appreciate is the analogue television static sound effect. There is probably a technical term for it, but I’m sure many of you would recall the snow on the screen, and the associated noise, when there was no signal. Regardless, it closes out the song and repetitious music beautifully.

Coins In Vinegar is perhaps the least compelling song on the album. It never truly captured my mind and I find it to be too similar in style to the preceding tracks.

Hung Door is quite erratic and downright creepy. You have definitely happened across the haunted house in the woods with this track.

Them Hitting is the sonic equivalent of a human dog whistle, albeit with additional musical elements. Surprisingly, it isn't off-putting and I even appreciate the Morse code-styled element throughout the song.

Car Park Land literally increases my breathing and pulse rates every time I hear it. Yet, I'm at a loss to explain this reaction. Can music really have this much of an impact on the human mind? I believe so, otherwise we would cease to have likes and dislikes regarding specific artists, albums, and musical styles. The wind chimes in this song assist with the feeling of solitude and while many find wind chimes to be relaxing, I generally find them to be one of the most annoying instruments in existence. However, in another strange dichotomy, I don't feel that way about them as I listen to this track.

Nocturne, as the final track on the album, presents a repetitiously mismatched compilation of interweaving sounds. It is captivating enough to have me play the album again, yet I find myself compelled to sit in silence and ponder my subjective interpretation of the entire album.

The question that must logically be asked is if this album can really be classed as music, or is it merely a culmination of sounds, resulting in noise? While I have expressed my own subjective thoughts, I can't help but wonder if an album such as this can exist simultaneously as music and noise.

Overall, I find Thrown to be devilishly enticing. Everything I know about myself tells me that I shouldn't like this album, yet I appreciate and respect the experimentation and subjective journey it has taken me on. While I have more questions than answers, regarding my interpretation of Thrown, one certainty is that Thrown will remain in my streaming music library, to be listened to again and again.

Thrown is available for purchase on CD, the TIDAL Store and iTunes. For those of you who prefer streaming, it is also available on TIDAL Hi-Fi, Spotify, and Apple Music.

This review was based on listening to the 2005 edition that is available on TIDAL Hi-Fi. It is important to note that while TIDAL Hi-Fi presents albums in CD-quality sound at 1,411kbps, Thrown is only presented as a 320kbps stream as TIDAL has not been given higher quality files from the artist. However, that is of little concern as the album remains sonically impressive. While I have referenced listening to this album on headphones, I have also heard it several times on speakers and can confirm that the sonic nuances remain transparent, regardless of playback method. This is, in part, because the album been beautifully recorded and mastered with kid gloves, thereby ensuring the experience takes your senses to a completely new level that will not easily be forgotten.