Having recently suggested in these pages that the fierce, bruising début by Pacific North West-based newcomers Strange Wilds could only have come from those parts, along comes an album, from a resident of Seattle no less, which at first glance could not be further removed from the city’s plaid-shirted musical past. All Around Us does reflect, however, the surroundings in which it was recorded, with Briana Marela having decamped to Reykjavík for the sessions.
A former student of music production and technology, Marela’s previous release, 2012’s Speak From Your Heart, was for the most part made up of repeating patterns of her voice, harmonised and layered over simple instrumentation and fuzzy found-sound washes – a pleasant enough series of experiments to listen in on maybe, but a little lacking in coherence.
For her second album, Marela has employed the production services of Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers, together with string ensemble amiina, also regular cohorts of the idiosyncratic Icelanders. As this might suggest, all nine tracks here are of a distinctly ethereal hue, and the same vocal looping techniques are now couched in lusher soundscapes, with the trickling tremolo voices and stuttering drums of the optimistic Surrender, the twinkling chimes of Take Care Of Me and the swooning, heady strings of the melancholic, quietly gorgeous Dani standing out in particular.
Marela is clearly a skilled manipulator of sound, and there is a lot in these carefully crafted mini-symphonies that will impress, particularly for the quiet pop enthusiast that can’t quite wait for the new Julia Holter album to come out. She has talked about the likes of Vashti Bunyan, Panda Bear and, inevitably, Björk as being among her influences and seems to have the talent, and restraint, to evoke them while steering clear of outright facsimile – only the opening Follow It falls foul of this, oh-oh-owing as it does a somewhat obvious debt to Laurie Anderson’s art-pop number 2 O Superman.
But sadly, all too often the material here is too gossamer-light to do anything but drift away, too insubstantial to merit closer scrutiny, due in large part to some rather clumsily cooing, cloying lyrics. “Dream of all the possibilities”, “We can do anything” and “Everyone has music within them”: all are taken from I Don’t Belong To You, yet appear more suited to the inspirational Facebook shares of a well-meaning aunt – perhaps the nonsense-language of Sigur Rós’ invented Hopelandic or the glossolalia of Liz Fraser’s Cocteau Twins lyrics would have been a better fit.
Despite this, there are moments here to wonder at, for instance the hushedly euphoric beauty of the intro to Further, the final track. A repeating feedback loop from the tail end of the title track fades gradually away, replaced steadily with voices overlaid on voices and strings that rise and fall like lungs expelling the wordless, sighing refrain, the sound building upwards and outwards in waves. Just as they crest, they collapse, and Marela intones “Nothing’s ever good enough;” it’s a juxtaposition that seems to suit rather neatly this pretty, but ultimately uneven record.