Monday, September 14, 2009

Review: A Fine Frenzy - Bomb in a Birdcage (* * * 1/2)

Alison Sudol, recording and performing as A Fine Frenzy, captured my attention a couple years ago with the release of her debut album, One Cell in the Sea. The piano-playing songstress has a lovely voice and a knack for writing captivating melodies that made her difficult to ignore despite the explosion of like-minded female singer/songwriters over the past few years. Sudol's new record, Bomb in a Birdcage, takes her in a different, and decidedly pop-oriented direction - showing a stronger, sexier side of A Fine Frenzy than we've heard before. Even the album covers tell the story, the first showing the red-haired twenty-something looking coyly down at her feet, the second placing her in a more aggressive pose - eyes fixed on the camera and lips seemingly ready for the kiss. The 11 tracks of her sophomore effort occasionally hold to her previously delicate piano balladry, but allow for plenty of expansion into more adventurous areas of pop and even rock 'n' roll with some exciting results.

First singles usually seem a good place to start, and "Blow Away" certainly showcases the evolution of A Fine Frenzy's sound. It's a bouncy, guitar-led piece that kicks the album into high gear, with Sudol's strong, smooth voice soaring joyfully in a chorus that's as catchy as anything I've heard this year. Her characteristic piano is here either buried by the other instrumentation or simply non-existent, but you won't miss it. Her instrument of choice DOES appear more often than not, but even then there's usually quite a bit going on in addition (all kinds of percussion, guitars, strings, woodwinds, etc.), which helps give Bomb in a Birdcage more stylistic range and emotional variation than her debut. The songs are often excellent, like the breezy, yet bittersweet "Bird of the Summer" and the heartbreaking "Swan Song," and even though some tunes don't seem as suited to her talents ("Electric Twist," for example), Sudol's more exploratory spirit makes for an enjoyable and fun experience as a whole.

Bomb in a Birdcage does sacrifice some consistency for experimentation's sake, but there's nothing here so out of place that it distracts much from the best material - which is plentiful. And by cutting nearly 20 minutes off the length of her debut (leaving behind some of the pleasant, but less interesting mid-tempo piano rock), Sudol makes her sophomore album both more interesting and manageable. It all feels like a necessary step for A Fine Frenzy and for Alison, who proves herself a versatile and ambitious young artist with the kind of restlessness that bodes well for her career down the line.

You can hear a good chunk of the album on her MySpace page if you're interested - which you should be.