Charlotte Martin sounds like Tori Amos without the crazy. That’s not meant as a knock or a compliment to either. Amos seems to be a true eccentric, so what works for her wouldn’t necessarily work for Martin, and Martin’s wise to know it. But they do share some blatant sonic traits, including versatile piano arrangements, strong and unusual melodies, and a penchant for swooping into a laser-sharp head voice to utter variations on “whoa” and “whoo”, like banshees in the stratosphere.
Throughout Dancing on Needles, her seventh full-length album, Martin seems to be chasing a sense of mystery, trying to evoke some ancient meaning that can’t be contained by everyday pop music. To her credit, though, she never sacrifices musical clarity and propulsion for mere atmosphere. Her husband, producer Ken Andrews (Pete Yorn, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), is responsible for most of the music that decorates Martin’s voice and piano. The songs are full of sound effects, like twinkling chimes and ominous background white noise, that give the songs personality without cluttering them up. The title song is a wonderful 4x4 stomper that sounds like it’s taking place in the same moors occupied by Loreena McKennitt. There are horn stabs on the offbeats and howling gales in the distance, but Martin’s arresting “woo-hoo-ooo”s remain the focus, and they plow into your brain.
Martin’s words tend to complement her singing, a good thing since it can be hard to tell what she’s singing about. In “Animal”, for instance, the phrases “You didn’t know” and “Instincts don’t help” sound great scaling the heights of her voice, and the sustained word “animal” traces a lovely melody over a descending bassline. When she closes the song with a weary “I loved you too hard”—well, I read an interview, so I know she’s referring to the nerve damage she suffered by holding her infant son against her body too long. Even if you don’t know anything about her personal life, you can probably relate to the sentiment. Mostly, though, her words fall squarely into the category of “lyrics that don’t call attention to themselves”. This is the opposite of Amos, who delights in streams of consciousness that crack her songs wide open with embarrassment and dread. If Martin has visions of little fascist panties, she’s not setting them to music.
That’s OK, because her music is consistently good, and it’s good in different ways. A classically trained vocalist who’s not prissy, Martin lets out a convincing ROAR in “Ready for a Flight”, and she’s got a penchant for overdubbing high harmonies and countermelodies with herself, another Amos trademark. She also enjoys rumbling around in the piano’s low end and altering her songs’ textures with repeated dissonant chords. And the songs themselves have all sorts of ethereal touchpoints, from “Tubular Bells” to Five for Fighting to Martin’s fave Kate Bush. The heavily percussive “Language of God” goes running up that particular hill, to majestic and loony effect. That it’s also an entertaining pop song is a credit to Martin and Andrews, and it’s a balance they maintain throughout this enjoyable album.