[20 May 2014]
A few years ago, UK-based Smoke Fairies released the enchanting Through the Lowlight and the Trees, a darkly engrossing album. It was filled with songs that tempted and repulsed, based around haunting lyrics and captivating harmonies. It seems that the four years between Through the Lowlight and the Trees and their new, self-titled, release have tamed Smoke Fairies. If their previous work sounded like a misty and foreboding forest, then Smoke Fairies is the sound of perfectly manicured lawns.
In my hometown, there was a radio station that billed itself as “family friendly”. Apparently this meant dominating the airwaves with soft melodies and innocuous lyrics that faded from the mind seconds after they were over. By and large, Smokes Fairies is built on this principle, faceless and unassuming pop music that crumbles under close listening. Opener “We’ve Seen Birds” is the perfect indicator of Smoke Fairies’ new bland sound. It opens with chiming piano chords and a sheen that seems fit for a parody of indie-pop. It’s a perfect song for the newest colorful Apple product. A good portion of these songs sink into that niche of infuriating music played in the back of commercials filled with people wearing blindingly bright smiles. I’m half expecting a jingle for toothpaste or insurance as some of the songs end.
The production is one of the main culprits. The entire album feels constrained in length and ambition. Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies’ voices usually float around each other, each distinct and captivating. On this release, there are times where they become interchangeable, with very little difference in personality or tone between them. The breathy intonation used to deliver nearly every line makes the lyrics perfunctory. The instrumentation gets an even worse hand. The drum work is basic at best and non-existent at worst. With an already sluggish pace, this album can’t afford the comatose rhythm section. The guitar work seems only to be going through the motions. Nothing evenly mildly interesting happens on the guitar lines, calling them simple ornamentation would be an overstatement. Even the moments that attempt to walk into gloomy territory feel calculated, like Smoke Fairies-lite.
Smoke Fairies isn’t a chore to work though, in fact it will all pass easily. These songs are played with such a shy mentality it seems like they’re afraid to intrude. In a year that has been brimming with music ready to grab you by the collar and throw you into the music, Smoke Fairies waits nervously at the edges, hoping you’ll be the one to initiate conversation. Even with time to deconstruct the album, I’m struck by how little has been retained. After multiple listens, it doesn’t feel like an album was produced. It seems more like a collection of noises to ignore in the background while you focus on more interesting tasks. Perhaps that’s fine for some listeners; it is pleasant enough to be inoffensive. But this album seems factory made with the goal of creating music that floats in the background, harmlessly and blandly. For a band once so captivating and mysterious, Smoke Fairies is a colossal step back.