“Apply”, the song that first brought attention to Glasser, is still the best song on the group’s debut album, Ring. The dark, intense percussion sets an ominous tone that only increases as it rocks between the two notes the synth scarily pounds. Cameron Mesirow’s vocals move back and forth, from foreboding to soaring, as the synth ripples out in the chorus. Above all, what really makes the song are the two moments where Mesirow squeaks between verses and the vocal noise loops until it becomes completely synthesized. Mesirow is letting herself go when she uses her voice as an instrument in this way. Aside from her vocals, the album is largely without instrumentation. Of course, synths provide tonal cues—there’s even a saxophone. But Glasser is basically Mesirow’s vocals. Other than her voice, instruments are relegated to the realm of percussion. And only when the percussion is dark—like, for instance, on “Apply”—does it temper a tendency that plays out more fully on the rest of the album. Mesirow often allows the flight of her vocals and synths send her off into the airy reaches of New Age. In other words, Glasser too frequently moves from Björk to Enya.
Glasser began as a completely individual project of Mesirow’s: she built these songs on Garage Band, as the story goes, without any other input. Ring includes the production aid of Ariel Rechtshaid of Foreign Born, ostensibly fleshing out the ideas Mesirow started from with more instrumentation, orchestration, and structure. Yet the building blocks of the songs are still obviously individual; each track belies its origin in the work of one person with a computer. The songs are layered, which gives them complexity, yet not in the same way that the interaction of instruments does. The songs therefore shed some of the restraints of typical pop structure. However, the danger is that the repetitive synth sequencing gets boring. But Mesirow sings recognizable melodies that cut right through the cyclical drone of the songs.
The typical form of each song starts from a repetitive percussive rhythm that continues throughout without much alteration aside from an increase in intensity or layering. The gradual buildup through essential repetition is a clear marking of a sequencer. Melodic input other than singing repeats without alteration just like the drum machine so that it too is merely part of the sequencing. In fact, the chorus vocals on each song also become part of the loop cycle. For the chorus, Mesirow will repeat a word until its sense disappears into the drone structure underlying each other level of the song. The effect is that the verse melodies soar seemingly freely, even though they are tethered to the rumbling percussion. But in the chorus, the freedom is curtailed as the song dives down into its center, the repercussion of the droning.
The conceit of the album—why it’s called Ring—is that the song sequence mimics the form of a circle, as it returns upon itself in themes. The cues for this are often obvious, like the quiet reprise of memorable moments that follows the last track, “Clamour”, but really, the album sounds like a collection of songs that basically have the same structure and sort of sound the same. Whether or not the ring structure holds throughout, the album is certainly atmospheric. The easy accessibility of Mesirow’s voice coaxes you into the sinking quicksand of the music. But this all seems a bit more complex than it actually is. The heart of the album is its melodic aptitude—the core of any good pop album. Mesirow writes lush and beautiful melodies and that’s that. The rest of the album isn’t greatly innovative. You may think of a number of other synth-based pop groups, running the gamut from harsher industrial sounds to softer trip-hop tones. The absence of instrumentation makes the music simple despite its texturing. Because the layers basically amount to more and more percussion, with the only icing being the beautiful vocals on top, in the end, there isn’t much to explore. The openness of the sound implies a wide landscape ready for adventure, but the landmarks are fuzzy, and not quite there.
The melody of “Tremel”, another album highlight, moves from low to high, immediately reminiscent of the classic vocal line of “Eleanor Rigby”. Glasser’s song crams itself into the ominous ringing of a single bass note, rather than expand into the symphonic majesty of the Beatles’ track. Mesirow again uses her voice instrumentally, building rounds of “oh’s” that populate the in-between spaces of the song. She lets herself freak out again to great effect in the next track, “Mirrorage”, where unexpectedly, the soft lushness of her voice takes a mechanical turn and gets double tracked by a nasty vocoder as if she was suddenly joined by a chorus of angry robots. If Mesirow let herself explore these weird sounds more fully instead of relying on the tried and true synthesized percussion, this album would reach another level of interest. She has the chops and the strange inclinations to go to those unexpected places, but too often chooses to sound nice and beautiful. It’s always intense, yet never as bizarre as the opening heralded.
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// Notes from the Road
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