If there is one musician who knows anything about the power of an astounding voice then it is Bella Union founder and ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde. In fact, hearing the voice of Wisconsin singer Stephanie Dosen inspired Raymonde so much that he felt compelled to work with her, first by producing her Bella Union 2007 debut and then reinvigorating his dormant recording career by forming a new group with her, his first since Cocteau Twins.
Snowbird is a musical relationship between Dosen and Raymonde. Much like he felt with Elizabeth Fraser, Raymonde was entranced by the crystalline beauty of Dosen’s voice. The gossamer-light music provided by Raymonde against Dosen’s voice forms the backdrop of Moon, the duo’s debut album.
While Raymonde provides much of the graceful and, often sublimely beautiful piano-based instrumentation, he describes Moon as Dosen’s album. Her voice is the focal point throughout. Dosen herself has been in demand for a long time as a singer, having previously appeared with Midlake, Massive Attack and The Chemical Brothers. With Snowbird though, her voice and vocal arrangements reach an altogether new exalted place.
The album is centred around a concept of the night, and the twilight ambience informs each of the 12 tracks. It’s a record all about atmosphere. No sound is overplayed or out of place. Lyrically, these are mysterious, allegorical night time lullabies, full of frosty imagery and references to ghosts, owls, white mice and foxes. It’s a world full of intrigue.
While most of the songs are understated and refined – the heart stopping piano piece Porcelain is as delicate as the title suggests – each piece is richly detailed and over repeated listens they blossom into something rather special. The sashaying waltz of All Wishes Are Ghosts sounds like something from a glorious fairytale as a playful flute swirls around the piano lines accompanied by Dosen’s voice in full bloom – it’s a highlight.
Given Raymonde’s musical history and the patterns and forms of Snowbird’s music as well as Dosen’s passing vocal similarity to Elizabeth Fraser, comparisons to Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil are inevitable. Indeed, the record even features typically ornate artwork courtesy of legendary 4AD in-house designer Vaughan Oliver. Dosen’s voice doesn’t quite have the startling otherworldly quality of Elizabeth Fraser’s, although there isn’t another vocalist on the planet blessed with those skills. Instead, her voice has a different kind of reflective emotion. Moon is instead more redolent of the later This Mortal Coil albums, in particular Blood. This is not some sort of classic period 4AD nostalgia trip though; this is a special album and a remarkable set of songs in its own right.
Complementing the main duo of Raymonde and Dosen are a number of guests who each provide sympathetic and understated contributions to the music. Radiohead drummer Phil Selway and guitarist Ed O’Brien provide perhaps the most obvious and best of these contributions, in particular the work of drummer Selway, whose skittering percussion enriches the bewitching Where Foxes Hide. Also appearing are a series of Bella Union stars including members of Midlake, Lanterns On The Lake, and Jonathan Wilson. Fortunately, the album never meanders off into the realm of indulgent super-group. Any number of guests cannot possibly take the focus off Dosen and Raymonde.
Moon is certainly not a commercial album that demands to be heard. The songs collected here are not chart hits. Instead, there is a wonderful sense that this is music born of passion and love. They did not need to make this album but felt compelled to do it. Snowbird have created a record to be cherished.