Alicia Hansen


Let's start from the end this time, agreed? Well, Fractography is a great album.

I have to admit I was very surprised, since by now I'm so used at finding my mailbox bursting with CDs that can only be defined as being mediocre, unoriginal, shoddy, uninspired, and lacking any reason to exist (but wait: there's also the option "All of the above"). And I hope readers will forgive me for thinking that the "self-released" nature of this CD could only make my suspicions more plausible.

Sure, it was funny to see that I knew all featured musicians, the one exception being the artist herself. I've listened to the instrumental work of Tommy Babin, bass, and Skye Brooks, drums, in many different contexts, and I often liked their performances even when the music itself was not my favourite cup of coffee (the most recent for instance of an item I reviewed when it comes to Brooks being the album by Inhabitants titled A Vacant Lot, released in 2010). Cellist and composer Peggy Lee is one of my personal favourites, and I was glad to see her here, two years after the release of New Code - released under the name The Peggy Lee Band - where guitarist Ron Samworth, also appearing here, had played so well.

After a few listening sessions I decided that the only name that came to my mind when listening to Alicia Hansen was Emily Bezar. In truth, after many listening sessions (in the course of four weeks) I changed my mind, with the only exception of the album's penultimate track, If You Asked Me, where those multiple vocals in a slow, pianistic ballad, so skillfully constructed with such a great attention to dynamics still made me think of (US) Bezar. But it's obvious that Hansen, who (provided I understood correctly) lives in Vancouver, follows a path that we can call her own, where classical influences (a lot), jazz influences (definitely more than a pinch), "Prog" (but here one has to separate the compositional side from the production work - we'll get to that in a moment), a skillful command of the keyboard, and excellent vocals (she has a fine voice which doesn't need any particular inclination in order to be appreciated) add up to a winning combination.

Babin's work is good, solid - as we all know, making others sound good is the bass player's thankless job. Brooks gets more space, since drums here assume an orchestral role with many different percussive timbres. Both Lee and Samworth are intelligently featured, both in their ensemble work and in tasty solo mini-episodes. Compositions are quite dense and complex (but not really "difficult"-sounding!), the great variety in their timbres and the mix work making the album appear longer than it really is: eleven tracks, thirty-five minutes!

Some curious similarities? Alcoholic and Freighters would not sound out of place on News From Babel's (hypothetical) third album. While the closing track, Fractograph, featuring Cory Curtis's distorted bass, could be said to remind one of some US New Wave groups from the 80s, just halfway between Thinking Plague and Orthotonics (which is not really true - but it's the best I could do!). I have no way to know what was of greater importance for the instrumental climates here, if the compositions, the production (by Aaron Joyce, who also did the arranging), or the engineering (by Jesse Gander). The CD credits Hansen as playing the piano, while uncredited instruments abound: the "harpsichord" on Under Hypnosis; the Hammond B3 + Leslie which one can clearly hear on Apple Core and In Armies; the modulated filter on Poison Tree; the electric piano(s) - a Wurlitzer? a Fender Rhodes? a (Nord) synth? - on Fractograph; funny thing, the Hammond B3 on Clear Enough reminded me of Hugh Banton on A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers by Van Der Graaf Generator. There are also typical "Prog" strategies such as the fast-forward tape (on Clear Enough), and the "splice" of backwards drums (on Fractograph), as transitional elements

I hope readers won't get the impression of Alicia Hansen being a guest on her own album! Quite the opposite, one can easily see her compositional personality being expressed with great coherence in her vocal parts, which are often multiple or choral. Variety notwithstanding, there's a unity of inspiration: readers are invited to listen side-by-side to the first track here - quite hesitant-sounding, almost somnambulistic - to the majestic-sounding "last track on Side One". Almost paradoxically, Fractography could be defined as the first album of a musician possessing great maturity.

Starting with what to me sounded like an arpeggio played on a prepared piano, Under Hypnosis features a clear melody and a fine crescendo, with a good use of the cello. Alcoholic has a frantic mood, propulsive drums, a fine guitar solo with vocal counterpoint. Homesickness is a beautiful vocal ballad featuring multiple voices and appropriate "orchestral" backing. Another excellent track, Freighters features a variety of snare drum timbres, and nice performances from cello and guitar. Apple Core is a piano ballad in ¾ with a captivating melody, multiple vocals, and a fine dialogue between cello and piano. The majestic-sounding In Armies is the close of "Side 1": drums played brushes, fine snare, and "choral" voices.

Poison Tree is a multi-themed, piano-led, mini-opera; there's a fine episode for two cellos and Hansen's vocals. Coming next, Clear Enough sounds almost naked, but let's check its fine compositional gesture; the solo vocals are especially beautiful. Norway is another fine piano ballad with "accordion" (a synth?), and a peculiar-sounding slow "techno" "splice". If You Asked Me brings us back to Bezar, and is the real album close. Coming after a tiny pause, the above-mentioned, New Waver, Fractograph takes the album to its conclusion. A fine work, sounding a bit bizarre, and quite fresh.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011 | Apr. 12, 2011