Aah, the still life; one of the art class’s perennial favourites. The anguish of the crushed Coke can, the symbolic wilting flowers, the fruit bowl so full of promise… But how to render the familiar in fresh colours and hues? How to glean something new for the jaded-eyed viewer?
Thankfully there are no such problemettes with Alessi Laurent-Marke’s third musical venture as Alessi’s Ark. Moving on from her pre-17 major deal signing self and her wilfully arty gauche folk DIY-isms flecked with Americana, The Still Life sees her finding more of her own voice and expression. She has a soothing vocal that never really stretches beyond its charmed comfort zone; nor does it betray any raw emotion. Instead it lures you into a deceptively sweet cocoon of intimacy. At times she seems fagged out and world-weary; at others there’s the glimmer of hope just around the corner. But her voice is never less than engaging, and sits well in the instrumentation, which is in the main acoustic, with added electronic and vocal earbaths.
Tethered throughout to an acoustic anchor, these songs have modern textures and washes of warm harmony that are neither cheesy nor sound obligatory. Strands of late period Cocteau Twins (Those Waves), the breathy intimacy of Suzanne Vega, and the Musical Explorer’s Badge of Kate Bush and Jesca Hoop; all roll together in a fuzzy jumble of genres and styles, and all are held together by Alessi’s engaging vocals.
She achieves her aim of creating a ‘stillness’ across the record, though it never seems stagnant or uninteresting, and her maturing musical palette covers the common threads of nature and love. Recorded in Athens, Georgia at producer Andy LeMaster’s studio (Bright Eyes, Drive-By Truckers) there is a spacious soundscape of an artist not afraid to try new things. Single The Rain is replete with sonic shudders and fizzgogs amidst the plucky loveliness, none of which detracts from the song. Lyrically, words get a bit frantic and almost trip over themselves on the opener Tin Smithing and the scattergun Big Dipper, but balance is kept in check with structure and sympathetic musical backing summoning up thrills and chills. Only on the plodding Pinewoods and Mountain, and the bilingual Sans Balance, do things appear merely ordinary.
A spooked-up cover of The National’s Afraid Of Everyone strips the song back to a shadowplay of layered vocals before launching into an unlikely but successful nocturnal funk. Whatever Makes You Happy and Veins In Blue’s woozy refrain of “Hey big chicken, who are you kidding?” possess an easy countrified charm, and the jazzy Money contains a joie de vivre and insight that belies Alessi’s 23 years. Hands In The Sink’s kitchen sink confessional is an unnerving but gentle reminiscence about the consequences of lifting up her dress. The Good Song, with its plucky hushedness, calls to mind a more neutered, but less fragile Cat Power.
In total, The Still Life is a spry and rewarding sonic balm that doesn’t outstay its welcome. It may, with any luck, expand Alessi’s Ark’s audience beyond the folky backwaters and on into wider territory.