Sounds for night-time log cabins far away from America’s too-loud cities.
Lewis G. Parker 2011-02-01
Julie Ann Baenziger is a Californian singer and multi-instrumentalist whose accomplished debut album is washed over in atmospheric weird folk, with the songs being a vehicle for creating landscapes of withdrawn emotion that recall Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther. Operating from a small town near Sacramento, she has created a sound inspired by the recent artists who are more at home in log cabins than in the too-loud cities of America.
But Songs for the Ravens, as its title suggests, is more of a night-time record than any of the recent artists who invoke the song of meadowlarks and the tranquillity of woods. Where Fleet Foxes’ debut was set in a visual landscape of hills and small towns in the low winter sun, Sea of Bees – with the twinkle of piano and the deep pom-pom of soft-mallet drums – is mostly the sound of those same places after dark, or in the rain. And Baenziger’s voice could be coming from Joanna Newsom’s less-excitable sister – possessing the same childlike pitch and wealth of withdrawn emotion, but never squeaking or yelping over her more sombre, electronic-tinged arrangements.
The two opening ballads, Gnomes and Skinnybone, and the closer, Blind, are affecting for the sweetness Baenziger’s voice bring to the haze of instrumentation. In particular, it’s the control of the arrangements and the withholding of her voice’s upper range that makes Sea of Bees an intriguing prospect, since we know that Baenziger has the ability to ramp it up with too many flourishes and yelps that would detract, rather than add to the atmosphere of the songs. But as accomplished with the ballads as she is, the upbeat songs – which are a minority of the track listing – feel lost in the caravans of Beth Orton’s Trailer Park when they should be skating across a starlit winter lake.
Increasingly artists are expected to earn their reputation and fan base with a masterpiece of a first album – which Songs for the Ravens is not – leaving those whose sound matures over time at a disadvantage in the recording industry. But in Sea of Beas there is definitely a voice, and perhaps a songwriter, who still has something stunning to offer.