The earnest female singer/songwriter is dead. I blame Alanis Morissette, and maybe Shawn Colvin. Back in the ‘90s, female singer/songwriters flourished, dominating radio and video airwaves. People actually looked forward to hearing the latest torments of Sarah Harmer, Sarah McLachlan, or Ani Defranco. Now, such self-indulgent exploits are considered “uncool” due mainly to the influence of ironic hipster culture. No one wants to hear what singers are really feeling. Expressive singer/songwriters have been passed over for technically proficient musicians, who consider expression to be nothing more than a cool beat backed by some nonsensical and unintelligible clever quip of the English language. Well, Sarah Slean hasn’t given up hope, even if her fan base and hopeful break into the mainstream have been steadily dwindling.
Slean is a unique talent considering she is classically trained as both a composer and a mezzo soprano opera singer with an affinity towards pop music. Her 1997 Indie EP cassette Universe, released via consignment with Toronto’s HMV superstore, earned Slean a major label contract with Universal Music. But instead of jumping right into writing and recording her first major label release, she convinced Universal to fund another Indie release, only this time a full-length effort. The reason? She wanted to progress as a pop songstress and the only way she thought she could was if she had more time and more experience to get it right. When she finally did jump into her major label release (2002’s Night Bugs) it became very clear, very quickly that she would be as popular as Rufus Wainwright or Tori Amos, capturing the hearts of those whose allegiance fell somewhere in between those two more prominent artists. However, unlike the latter, she tried only once more to appeal to the masses (2004’s Day One), until finally opting to pave her own musical path.
Land & Sea is Sarah Slean’s fourth major label album, fifth overall. In between each album release, Slean has dived into recording cover albums with Indie jazz groups, starred in musicals, wrote classical movements for a string quartet, and graced the contemporary classical music scene with her mezzo soprano vocal stylings. She doesn’t sit still, preferring to approach her music as art projects and aural installations as opposed to simplified pop records. Land & Sea, a double album consisting of Land (a pop record) and Sea (a classical-inspired record), sees Slean dipping into both musical pools. Land is the radio friendly bread-and-butter of the album, with off-beat pop ditties such as “Life”, “Set it Free” or the album highlight “Amen”. Sarah was never one for sorrowful tunes about love lost or self-pity, instead opting to “look on the bright side” or offer rude awakenings to individuals who blame everyone but themselves for their plight, and this collection of 18 original tunes is no exception. Also, Slean rarely sings about herself. I know, this contradicts what I write at the beginning of this review, but her storytelling is so well conveyed and dripping with empathy that you feel Slean pouring herself into every single line, even if you know she’s singing about someone else.
That’s not to say that she never sings about herself, or at least disguises her characters in the first person. In fact, some of her best tunes off Land are tunes in which she places herself in the center square of the storytelling. In “Amen” (easily the best tune on the first disc), she sings: “I’m tired of this scene and all that it means / No company cool will define me / I’m tired of this screen staring at me / No radiant box could confine me / And I… / I keep running on empty, thinking maybe I’ll see a sign / But if I open my heart someone will say / Amen.” It’s a poignant tune, perfectly sung without any of the hokey self-help clichés that turn the stomach of most music listeners. The rest of Land plays like a life lesson of overcoming your tortured regrets. Produced mainly by Joel Plaskett, Land is a beautiful and quirky pop record, filled with catchy melodic harmonies, choruses that beg to be sung from the rooftop of a skyscraper, and subtle, but intricate, backing instrumentation.
It’s on Sea where Slean begins to tread through some occasionally rough waters. The lush instrumentation of the 26-piece orchestra (of which was predominantly written by Slean herself) is beautiful and perfectly complements Slean’s classically trained songwriting. However, with little variation in tone and set against the wonderful Land, Sea feels a little like the left over filler from her recording sessions. It’s sad to say because it’s still better than a lot of other classically-inspired records as of late. Set against it’s own merits, though, Sea is still a strong collection of tunes, expertly written. Slean has a knack for wonderfully inspired lyrics that traverse such intricate and vast subjects, and nowhere else do these lyrics shine through than on her piano-ballads.
On Sea’s album opener “Cosmic Ballet”, she sings: “See as the flower opens / what is there to say? / oh, hear the vow unspoken in its sweet decay / this eternity of ebb and flowing… / oh, the cosmic ballet”. Poignant and poetic, her often times dark and complicated subject matter shines best on Sea. It’s unfortunate that Sea is slightly uneven considering her track record for writing some of the most beautiful piano ballads (have a listen to “Twin Moon”, “Universe” or “Looking for Someone”). Perhaps an integration of the best tunes from both discs would have fared better for this maiden songstress.
Slight missteps aside, Land & Sea still stands as one of the best pop-crossover albums to be released as of late. With such massive disappointments from artists such as Feist, Bjork and Tori Amos, it’s a relief to know that Slean hasn’t lost her direction—never repeating herself, but never veering too far into a direction that leaves her inaccessible. Land & Sea is a beautiful accomplishment from one of Canada’s most underrated songstresses.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.