Honey from the Tombs, Amy Millan’s first solo album, had one great song (“Skinny Boy”), a few other compelling tracks, and a bunch of stuff that seemed to just drift by. The singer-songwriter who’s in Stars and often contributes to Broken Social Scene was never expected, of course, to produce something as immediately likeable or formally ambitious as those overpowering indie presences. Nevertheless, her solo output so far always seemed, well, pretty modest in comparison.
Masters of the Burial is another fairly slight offering – just over thirty minutes. Like her debut, Masters of the Burial contains a number of covers. The most commented has been the Death Cab for Cutie Song “I Will Follow You into the Dark”, from Plans. One of the most upbeat songs on the album, it’s something of a typical Millan cover, infusing her downbeat country acoustic twang into Ben Gibbard’s emo ballad. The song has been a familiar one in Millan shows over the years, and her version sounds well worn in, with the twisting phrasing of Connor Oberst. Elsewhere, though, Millan tackles songs by Sarah Harmer, Richard Hawley and Jenny Whiteley. Who are these people? Harmer and Whiteley have performed and recorded with Millan often in the past, creating this clique of Canadian female singer-songwriters more interested in this downbeat balladry than Feist’s plucky individualism, say.
Millan’s own compositions fit in well with her covers; understated and peaceful, they rely more on timbre than melody or, really, the insight of the lyrics. In this way she reminds of a shy Australian singer called Holly Throsby, who’s slightly more husky, but fits the same mould. Between Masters and her previous songs, Millan hasn’t changed much – rounding out some of her work with a sparingly used snare, or an extra layer of guitar, or strings or a plaintive trombone. The timbre is the same, which becomes a problem only when it comes to feel predictable. Millan’s songs are beautiful, and can even be beguiling, but they are pretty much all set with similar voicing, tempi, and melodic range. The singer will choose to fall off the peak of a melodic arc in a chorus, and never pushes her voice for dramatic effect. The result is so understated as to almost negate any impact at all.
The one exception may be “Day to Day” (the Whiteley cover). This skeletal song, at first disorienting, becomes addictive on the third or fourth listen. It’s essentially an a cappella hymn, just Millan’s voice over a simple beat, and is reminiscent of Peter Bjorn and John’s recent asceticism, mining power from the space around the words. “And the moon on the trees is beautiful,” Millan sings before ending quite abruptly – “But not so lovely as you”.
But on Masters of the Burial Amy Millan, outside of her stellar work with Stars and Broken Social Scene, seems to be returning to well-mined, familiar ground. Before, it was “those lips I could spend a day with”. Here she’s considering “your mouth on my mouth / A fire I just can’t put out”. Her sound sure is pretty, but it doesn’t hook you in the way, say, Cat Power’s self-destruction does. Of all the musicians out of the fertile Canadian scene who’ve gone off on solo jaunts – unless she finds some new subject and greatly expanded range – Millan’s is likely to remain the most modest, at least for now.