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“I’m a cold spot in the water” Sarah Jaffe sings in “Halfway Right” on The Body Wins (out April 24). She’s only partially right: sometimes her voice is a cold crystal, cutting like ice, but she’s equally capable of rock ‘n’ roll urgency or soulful pleading. The extraordinary instrument of her voice, and the way she adapts it perfectly to express each song is the delicious core of this moody, moving and inventive album. It’s quite a change for an artist previously labeled alt-country (although she seemed more “alt” than “country” to me).
With a string crescendo and then Jaffe’s pleading voice, the short orchestral piece “Paul” opens the album in dramatic fashion. It’s slow and tense, a kind of urgent torch song, like Lana Del Ray for adults (and with talent and soul). She ends with the phrase “the body always wins,” which leads into the title track (albeit shortened to “Body Wins” here), a much more rhythmic piece with slinky bass and toms. Her voice is less pleading and more sensual here – the flexibility of her voice is one of her great strengths – and is counterpointed horn, sax and string chords that sound like something in an old James Bond film. “Glorified High” (the lead single) is similarly rhythmic but, in this case, she showcases an R&B chant leading into an urgent chorus driven by distorted noise and pounded piano.
To an extent, this album is what the last Florence + The Machine could have been, had someone toned down the bombast. Where that record tended to go full throttle, “everything but the kitchen sink” on virtually every track, Jaffe and her producer, John Congleton, take a subtler approach – with much more impact. “The Way Sound Leaves a Room” is a chilling example of this: And if you’re not moved by “Hooray for Love,” a tour-de-force for Jaffe’s voice (with the title line delivered in a anguished wail that makes it clear she’s not exactly celebrating here), then check for a pulse!
She can rock with the best, as she shows on the sardonic “Sucker for Your Marketing” with its bass line and on “Talk,” where she goes PJ Harvey with distorted guitars (supported by a Prince-like beat!).
It’s not all darkness and intensity. With a title like “Fangs,” I expected something more like “Talk,” i.e. a bit of rock ‘n’ roll snarl. Instead, it’s a melancholy sax and piano ballad. “Foggy Field” features a delicate harp and quiet, introspective lyrics. “Mannequin Woman” sounds like something Feist might release with its soulful “Too stoned” chorus and Fleetwood Mac-like bass. And with sleepy handclaps, drawn out string accents and a rumbling bass underlining Jaffe’s softly sung chorus of “Where you gonna rest your head,” the gorgeous, slow, head-swaying “When You Rest” brings the album to an elegiac close.
This is a tremendously confident record from an artist I hope to hear many more good things from. Check it out on NPR.