Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blue Roses: Blue Roses

Maybe certain albums should be tagged with a Caution: Intensely Serious and Introspective Folksinger Contained Within sticker. An image of an every(wo)man singer armed only with a guitar or with a piano whose keys just beg to be plinked and various sundry stringed instruments waiting patiently in the background could be used to warn listeners of what they can expect. Blue Roses, both the band name and debut album from British artist Laura Groves, offers all the best and worst of modern folk music: understated, carefully crafted melodies whose impact is deadened by an unfortunate excess of maudlin lyrics and overwrought vocals. Like much of the current crop of such performers, Blue Roses sounds firmly rooted in the female singer-songwriter tradition that stretches from Joni Mitchell to Joanna Newsom, with Groves reminiscent of such checkpoints without being redundant. Yet this release is ultimately underwhelming and too often plays like just another entry from that seemingly endless horde of sincere and self-serious musicians from both sides of the Atlantic.

Blue Roses' greatest strength lies in its arrangements; regardless of any vocal or lyrical flaws that plague the album, the songs themselves are arranged beautifully. Various instruments are interwoven nicely, giving the record depth and an almost baroque and ornate feel. "Greatest Thoughts" and "I Wish I..." both seamlessly meld piano with strings; the latter song's shifting tempos are likewise used to great effect. Groves' production abilities salvage parts of other songs as well; "I Am Leaving" mixes synths with the singer's voice layered as background vocals, while the stop-start arrangement and guitar strums of "Can't Sleep" work well together, with Groves' voice more restrained and controlled than it is for most of the album.

Vocals that never find that delicate balance between being unique and ear-piercingly grating have been the bane of many a musician and Groves is no exception. Her singing is often shrill as she flirts with some serious upper ranges, with vocals that are over dramatic and tough to take except in small doses. Groves also tries to cram a shitload of words into spaces too small to hold them, making some songs verbose and cluttered. All of this detracts from the songs' arrangements; Groves' jacked-up, avian vocal flights of fancy on "Cover Your Tracks" and "Doubtful Comforts" are too indulgent to ignore, overcooked and upfront in the mix. Despite having a voice that sounds as sweet as honey when her exertion is low - "Rebecca" is perhaps the best example of this - Groves is instead prone to applying a stranglehold to the high notes. Even the most intriguing melodies are eventually smothered by this approach, with the arrangements' organic nature and the vocals' chirping not sitting particularly well together.

Those who have little patience for music of the nakedly earnest and wounded variety will find plenty to gripe about here, as Groves' broken-heart-on-sleeve lyrics - "I wish that I could photograph my moods" and "Does anyone love me/ 'Cause I asked the deep sea/ But it wouldn't speak to me/ My darling I'm sorry" - are just so twee and tender. Blue Roses' instrumental structures and vocals simply don't work well together; although its songs aren't without their charms, such sincerity and a few expertly formed arrangements aren't enough to offset their shortcomings.

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