Alison Sudol claims a childhood forged by great influences, from C. S. Lewis to E. B. White, Aretha Franklin to Aqualung, the Beatles to Bjork. Sudol’s musical creation, better known as A Fine Frenzy, does not reach the classic genius of her favorite legends, although there is pleasant potential. But the trouble I had getting into her debut album, One Cell in the Sea, is similar to the trouble I have in filling an empty stomach with nothing but a plain salad – it can happen, but it takes awhile.
A friend first introduced me to “Almost Lover,” a simple but piercing melancholic ballad that, from the first piano chord to the unresolved closing, is favorably reminiscent of Coldplay’s instantly depressing (and oh-so-beautiful) classic, “The Scientist.” I was interested enough to explore a few more songs by the artist, and was perfectly charmed by “You Picked Me,” an irresistibly pleasant love song: “Like an apple on a tree / Hiding out behind the leaves / I was difficult to reach / But you picked me.” One can almost see Sudol smiling as she nearly whispers the last three words with a purely delightful inflection.
My appetite sufficiently whetted, I forked out the ten bucks for the album… and found myself rather disappointed. One Cell in the Sea is a glorification and celebration of nature, from the album art to the music videos to the amiable metaphors. It’s also kind of bland. The aforementioned gems were squeezed into sixty-one long minutes (that’s more than an hour!) of something somewhere between the underground indie scene and the decade-old soft rock singles that filter through the sound system at my supermarket. An abundance of strings not seen since the 90’s immersed Sudol’s ivory tickling. While it was nice to hear the genuine pluck of piano keys in this modern, digitized, synthesized age, the repetitive motions of either rapid straight chords or back-and-forth arpeggios threatened to lull me into a boring nightmare.
Sudol’s attempts at poetic imagery on songs such as “Rangers” (“And the rangers scream out to the cabins / They are the hunters / We are the rabbits / Maybe we don’t want to be found“) don’t exactly carry the evocative presence of say, mewithoutYou (neither does the random accordion that opens “Liar, Liar”). And when the plucking piano isn’t pushing the album forward, it plods through slow, almost rhythm less marshes similar to parts of the latter half of The Fray’s How to Save a Life, but without its quivering calm.
But before I could get around to writing my first harsh review, I found myself humming a song from One Cell in the Sea. And then another. And another. The melodies had carved little rivers through my brain and were slowly digging deeper paths. I dusted off the disc (if audio files can be dusted off), gave it a few more digital spins, and decided, “Hey, this really isn’t so bad after all!”
The strength of A Fine Frenzy is Sudol’s voice, naturally fluctuating from a soft whisper to a lilting falsetto to a strong resonating quality, and there’s a bit of Imogen Heap channeling with harmonic vocal layering on “The Minnow & the Trout” and “Last of Days.” On closer inspection, even the strings aren’t really so unfortunate. There’s a few sprinkled horns that rise to the surface, as well as some warm cello tones that seem to indicate that not all of the strings are sugary synthetics.
I don’t know if Sudol deliberately created a natural theme to encourage us to “Come On, Come Out” from our permeated lives and enjoy the sun, or if she just wanted an excuse to play a piano in the middle of a field on a bright, warm day (still on my list of things to do before I die), but while A Fine Frenzy didn’t smash into the front of my favorites list, it’s slowly carving out its territory on my musical horizons like a growing tree or a slowly rising sun. And maybe that’s just the way this album was intended.