Release Date: 09.07.02
Record label: Soft Alarm Music
Genre(s): Movies, Film Scores, Musicals, Etc.
by: terry sawyer
Let me first get most of my compliments out of the way as a form of insult absolution. Flora Reed is a singer-songwriter of burgeoning sincerity and has a good ear for how best to present her music. Nothing sounds worse than an album binged on production. You know, like those records piled with session trumpets, sitars and one of those ghastly rent-a-choirs. Flora Reed keeps it quiet and simple; most of the tracks on Settle Down are beautifully arranged. “Flowers at My Feet” is a perfect example of cunning simplicity, particularly the nude, hushing drums that flow in flawlessly.
Yet Flora Reed’s vocal style is best taken in small doses. There’s a great smoky quality to her voice that gets clotty whenever she pushes it into mild vocal acrobatics. Reed never really busts out of her very narrow range and on many of the tracks her voice sounds caged and cloying. After several listens I found the asthmatic reach of her vocals to be difficult to take. It’d be different if her lyrics provided the space for intrigue that her voice doesn’t. Unfortunately, the subjects of her songs seem equally limited. Flora Reed’s lyrics pool around the subjects of hissy betrayal, slightly obsessive love and then lyrics which remind me of Tori Amos: dully cryptic.
In “Sweetly Said” she writes “His heart still clatters like bones underwater/It calls out loud enough to hear”. This record is rife with perplexing images that never electrify. Would bones clatter underwater? I don’t know, but I do know that poetry done well is poetry that just happens in an organic dialect. Much of these songs sound as if they’re feelings that get churned through a poetry some kind of poetry machine akin to a Sylvia Path snow cone maker.
This is very much in the Natalie Merchant vein of songwriting, that kind of Lilith Fair bathtub pop that supposed to be massaging in its general effect. For me, the general effect is absence, and I have to constantly remind myself that music is playing and that I’m supposed to be writing about it and, therefore, should be listening.
Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of noticeable beauty. “Just Ask”, with its spare instrumentation and back-up harmony, goes a long way to creating a stunning, delicate pop song with just a dash of gospel. “Settle Down”, despite some wince-inducing lyrics, has a Fiona Apple grind that sounds sassy and coquettish enough to catch in the ear.
The rest of the record could do with a couple emergency buckets of raunch. I suppose not everyone has to look to their crotch for inspiration, but it sure helps. Especially when you’re writing about relationships in that really vague, day dreamy, Prince Charming sort of way. Maybe that’s it, the difference between writing a song that sounds like it’s about something that happened versus something primarily imagined. Reed’s songwriting sphere seems to be ungrounded, nebulous, or in the case of her elegy for a Toni Morrison novel, too removed from her own experience to be emotionally impacting. Her cover of Bjork’s “Joga” deflates the original to the point of suffocation. After all, the song is supposed to convey this a sense of hugeness since it’s supposed to be about Bjork’s love for the geographic majesty of her homeland. Reed’s acapella rendition is a robbery.
There are much worse things to do musically than make a pop singer album for hungering Sarah MacLachlan or Dar Williams fans. Despite what I said above, I didn’t hate this record. In fact, I would describe my reaction as detached, if anything at all. I think there are many people who find this just the sort of Dear Diary album that they gives them the vein opening comfort they crave. I need something else to pull me through, something a bit more chancy and something that commands me to listen rather than compels me to pick up a book. 21-Jan-2003 7:00 PM