Too long ago I promised local musicians I would review their albums on this blog. It’s about time I got around to doing so. Every Sunday from now on I’m going to be reviewing local releases, new or not, until I’ve gotten through them all. Today I’m reviewing two albums by Elissa Margolin, Lost in Sounds and Fine Line Forming.
Elissa Margolin’s debut album, Lost in Sounds, feels like a record that got stuck in the back of a box in the attic only to be discovered years later, leaving the listener wondering who this singer-songwriter was and why she’s so compelling to listen to. The bare-bones arrangements, the soft vocals and the studio effects (especially reverb) sprinkled throughout give it this time-capsule effect but also makes for a very enjoyable listen.
The semi-ethereal effect of the recording doesn’t take away from the quality of the songwriting. I don’t presume to know her influences but she has been compared to Tori Amos before (which, on this album is most evident on the opening title track) although I would also suggest that fans of Starofash’s early recordings might appreciate the darker side of this album. I also noticed traces of mid-seventies Genesis à la Steven Hackett composition (“Sing a Dream”).
The production of Lost in Sounds varies in quality throughout although not drastically. The song “Against the Grain” starts with a call-and-response between Margolin’s piano and Richard Margolin’s trumpet, with the trumpet having an obviously different recording quality. In this case, there’s a certain charm to that effect. (It doesn’t always work that way, however, which I discuss later.) For the most part, however, all of the instruments on the album sound like they belong to each other in that regard.
There’s also a credit for “giggles” by Chloe and Jacob Macdonald (the capitalization here is as the liner notes give it). One must always have giggles.
In places throughout the album I had some problems understanding the lyrics although I did notice that there is a strong theme throughout of passage of time (“Woman at the Window,” “Let It Go”). Part of the reason why I couldn’t make out the words may have been the production—I can appreciate styles of music in which the vocals are not the main focus and actually turned down in the mix but something tells me that isn’t the intent on this album. There are also times in which I’m not sure if Margolin’s vocals are low in the mix or if they are just sung quietly. It almost seems as if she didn’t always have the confidence in her voice that I’ve come to know from the following album and live performances.
Margolin’s vocals are much stronger on the album Fine Line Forming which is in a way her second album. Although Fine Line Forming is also the name of the band and is released as an eponymous CD, it’s still Margolin writing the songs. While her performance on vocals, guitar and keyboards on Lost in Sounds have a charm in their uneasiness they become one of the strongest points of Fine Line Forming.
While Margolin is the chief songwriter this is still technically a band release (although most of the band—drummer Katie Grazier, guitarist Nick Phaneuf and saxophonist Russ Grazier all performed on Lost In Sounds, this time joined by bassist Geoff Crosby and producer Mike Effenberger on synth). As such even the slower songs more energy this time. The darker feel to certain songs (such as the song “Only You Know”) is more prevalent and feels more intentional here but it doesn’t overwhelm the whole recording. The band is in full control of the atmosphere that any of the songs demand, resulting in a tight album.
If there was one downside to Fine Line Forming it’s the production on Katie Grazier’s drums. I’m all for lo-fi recordings but in this case they sound like they were recorded in a different studio by a different engineer than the rest of the album. More microphones and a more enclosed space with better acoustics would have helped. But this is only distracting if you’re as picky as I am. The quality of the music overpowers any such flaws for the most part so it doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the listening.
If you’re in the Seacoast area of New Hampshire and Southern Maine you can now usually catch Margolin performing with her newer band Acheson Gown (which now includes bassist Nick Therrien, who performed on Lost in Sounds). They still perform mostly her songs, including some from the releases above, but this time with a more jazzy edge than the singer-songwriter pieces above. Margolin has shown a willingness to experiment over the years so it’s worth seeing what she’s going to do next.
For information on buying CDs check out Fine Line Forming’s Facebook page. They are also available digitally through iTunes, Spotify, and I Heart Radio.