[27 May 2008]
Oh, Ms. Fraser sounds lovely. She has a way with a melody that makes her sound like a cross between Sarah McLachlan and KT Tunstall, as earnest as both of those artists with a pop sheen that makes her ready made for triple-A radio and packed concerts in which the X/Y chromosome divide is about 80/20. That neither of her albums has been released to record stores in Europe or America, while she can go many times platinum in Australia and New Zealand, is simply one of those cultural mysteries that will never be solved, given that her sound is as universal as the beauty of a plucked flower turning and twisting in the breeze.
Perhaps that’s the answer, however. The sound of Brooke Fraser as it’s presented on her latest album Albertine is that of the prototypical female singer-songwriter, complete with every trope and cliché that might imply. There are copious acoustic guitars, a healthy dose of pianos, a lovely, elegant voice, and equal doses of sincerity whether she is singing about the plight and tragedies of Rwanda or her own self-doubt. And somehow, that consistency is okay, because it simply means that she cares about both; you can chalk up the sheen and the evenness of it all to an expensive studio.
Or perhaps the reason that Fraser hasn’t quite hit it big outside those places she calls home (she was born in New Zealand, but currently resides in Sydney) is her affection for a Christian God. She shows unwavering devotion to Him throughout the album, offering tidbits like, “It’s truth that shows us / if we all walk in His light” (from “Deciphering Me”) and “Leave all you were before / to believe is to begin” (“Hosea’s Wife”) throughout, not to mention the positively reverent “Hymn”, which closes the album. Fraser never comes across as preachy or pious or anything like that. Rather, God seems here to be a means toward self-discovery and reflection. Fraser’s God is one who has personal connections with each of His followers, and Fraser is not afraid to express the one that He has with her.
Despite the apparent blurring of the boundaries between church and state that have happened in the last, oh, seven years or so, the boundary between church and popular art is still relatively intact. Kanye West may have done some overblown boundary-busting in the form of “Jesus Walks” a few years ago, but the message of his song remains intact. People generally don’t want to be reminded of God’s presence when they’re listening to the radio. Major record companies assume that we would rather the music we hear on the radio be utterly separate from that which we hear on Sunday morning, relegating anything that contains a religious message to fringe segments of the labels.
Despite this perceived injustice, however, perhaps iTunes is the place for Ms. Fraser anyway. Her songs do have a tendency to blur together, with the occasional beautiful, touching piece that grabs hold of all of the right nerves and doesn’t let go. “Albertine” is the Rwanda song, to be painfully reductive, and its rhythmic, largely amelodic guitar work stands in sharp contrast to the lush, almost cloying melodic sensibilities of the rest of the album. The lyrics put names on those affected by the genocide, one which seems so far removed from now, and puts the onus on Fraser and her listeners to help those still feeling its effects. Together with the sparse keyboard touches, the lyrics are both touching and motivating. “Faith without deeds is dead,” she sings. The way she backs up such a strong proclamation is incredibly effective. Driving the point home, she gives a number of humanitarian aid organizations links in a prominent place in her CD art (art that, regrettably, those who download her music on iTunes will never see). “Hymn” takes the “honorable mention” prize, with a piano-based musical arrangement that stays close to the origins its title suggests, without getting lost in the clichés that would be so easy to fall into.
Most of the rest of Albertine is Sarah McLachlan-lite, unfortunately: songs that don’t hold up to the album’s best moments. Tracks like “Deciphering Me” and “Love Is Waiting” don’t repel listeners, but they don’t stand out enough to catch them within a crowded musical landscape. Of all of the strikes against Fraser, it is probably this last that has her failing to find footing anywhere other than Australia and New Zealand. Still, there’s a good possibility that the record executive looking to take a chance on this particular artist will someday very soon be rewarded handsomely.