[28 April 2010]
Although the component parts of Felix seem incongruous with one another, their coming together is not necessarily surprising. Lucinda Chua, probably best known for her touring work with Stars of the Lid, had been releasing solo CDRs before collaborating with Lords’ Chris Summerlin. While Stars of the Lid’s ambient drone and Lords’ dirty rock riffs can’t be further apart aesthetically, Summerlin’s contribution to Felix is far from out-of-place. His guitar adds a sense of tension to Chua’s vocals that her cello couldn’t manage alone. Add Kranky to the pairing—a label known for specializing in ambient work such as Stars of the Lid, but more recently incorporating songwriter-based bands like Deerhunter—and it comes off looking like a match made in avant-pop heaven.
Yet, You Are the One I Pick is a puzzling record. The boundary that Felix explores between a purely singer-songwriter sensibility and a more experimental chamber-pop sound is one that is not often charted, and at times they wander too far into one or the other territory. Chua’s lyrics are witty and familiarly conversational, and her delivery is best described as Regina Spektor with none of the cloying preciousness. She barely sings above a whisper for much of the album, and frequent multi-tracking of her vocals only emphasizes the effect that she’s taking you into her confidence. Add to this piano, guitar, strings, and percussion, all meticulously produced and with the hallmarks of Kranky’s avant-garde leanings, and the result is somewhere between confessional, chamber, jazz, lounge, and (at times) drone. All very interesting, but at times uneven. One wonders if Chua and Summerlin wouldn’t have benefited from a more stripped-down approach that would highlight Chua’s considerable vocal prowess to a greater extent.
For all this crisis of identity, the flow of You Are the One I Pick is that of a well-written and considered record. If Chua’s lyrical tendencies sometimes seem at odds with their instrumental backing, the progression from song to song is appropriate on both counts. Narratively, Chua takes the listener through emotional highs and lows, covering topics ranging from the Marlboro Man to dragons to Twin Peaks while making each seem perfectly relatable. The music supports the arc with guitars that are alternately biting and lilting, strings that are alternately gripping and morose, and percussion that slides in and out, depending on the mood.
The record begins with a beautiful piano melody and Chua’s charmingly inflected vocals declaring “Death to everyone but us.” Her cello then enters, providing just enough background to keep the song interesting. It is songs like this that showcase the band’s strong suit. It is elegant, understated, and addicting. The second track, “You Are the One I Pick”, sees Summerlin’s guitar make its entrance. It acts here, as in much of the album, as a driving force behind the song. “What I Learned from T.V.” and “Bernard St.” are examples of the album’s tendency to wander. Both tracks open with a couple minutes of instrumental workouts, based on strings in the former and guitar and piano in the latter. These sections are successful in their own right, but distracting from the album as a whole. Through these sections, there is a feeling that the listener is merely patiently waiting for Chua’s heartbreaking voice to enter again and define the instruments as background.
Ultimately, You Are the One I Pick is a successful album. It would be more concise and consistent without the forays into post-rock instrumental explorations, but such moments only become grating after many repeated listens. And because of the sheer magnetic force of Chua’s voice, they are hardly a deterrent to repeated listens.