For all we know, Alison Sudol comes from a fantasy world. With her fiery red tresses, gentle voice and elegant, old-fashioned beauty, the 24-year-old force behind A Fine Frenzy is mysterious and alluring in the way of fairytale characters.
The same goes for her music.
A Fine Frenzy’s debut record garnered much critical acclaim in 2007, and for good reason. One Cell in the Sea is raw and heartbreaking, earthy yet ethereal. The album’s quietly haunting, piano-laden melodies transport you to another place: a lush and remote dream world that feels, somehow, strangely like home.
While her sophomore album, Bomb in a Birdcage, retains a great deal of this romanticism, it’s a major departure from A Fine Frenzy’s organic debut. The record is bubblier, spunkier and more laid-back, and feels approachable even for those who don’t consider themselves sensitive, emotional types. Apparently, Sudol can let loose and have a good time — and she wants her listeners to know it.
But what Sudol gains in geniality, she loses in poignancy. By parting ways with her more serious, meditative self, the singer also seems to have lost her uniquely mysterious appeal.
Sudol is a self-professed book-lover who likened her moniker after a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It makes sense, then, that Bomb in a Birdcage feels like a short work of literature, lyrically cohesive and bursting with nature imagery and bird motifs.
Like a novel, Bomb in a Birdcage truly begins with its title. At once threatening and delicate, these four words perfectly capture the essence of the album.
The title comes from the album’s opening track, “What I Wouldn’t Do,” a breezy little number with handclaps and whistles that sets the capricious tone for the remaining tracklist.
“Blow Away,” the album’s first single, is vigorously bright and bubbly, recalling Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity.” As the title suggests, the song portrays Sudol as a spirit of the wind — liberated and carefree.
Sudol continues to channel this sense of buoyancy in “New Heights,” an invigorating song with a soaring melody, and “Bird of the Summer,” a nostalgic tune that conveys the fleeting nature of summer love: Now I know I should recover/ You’re a bird of the summer/ I was wrong to try and capture you.
“Electric Twist” reveals a cheeky, whimsical side to Sudol we’ve never seen before. The song features the artist’s first use of the electric guitar — and occasional delighted squeal. The song is quirky and endearing, reminiscent of Feist and The Bird and the Bee, but is almost disorienting in its unexpectedness.
“Stood Up,” a rock ballad with strong electronic flavors, is another shocker and probably Sudol’s most daring song to date. The vocals on the track are aggressive and tomboyish, conveying an unfamiliar, almost Tegan and Sara-like sound.
That the song is interesting and different is undeniable. But herein lies the conundrum: Where in the song is the passionate, vulnerable woman with whom we fell in love?
And the greater question: Where is she on the album?
Even the gentle tunes that hint to Sudol’s musical past — “Swan Song,” “Elements” and “World Without,” for example — seem to be missing One Cell in the Sea’s sense of urgent yet understated emotion.
Bomb in a Birdcage is a compelling album — fun, lively and at times enchanting. But in her attempt to be daring and different, to venture outside of her lush fantasy world, Sudol seems to have lost a sense of herself. To be daring requires a certain degree of danger and flippancy that the romantic spirit of Sudol doesn’t have.
Not that that’s a bad thing. Unlike Lady Gaga, some people don’t have to be loud to speak volumes.