Sophie Barker: Earthbound

[30 May 2006]

By Mike Schiller

I’m scuba diving in the ocean—God, it’s so beautiful.  I look into the dark depths beneath me, and I see a quick glimmer of light, something reflecting the bright sun above in a powerful manner.  I swim toward it, curious at this unnatural occurrence below me, still taking a few brief moments to reflect upon the beauty of my surroundings.  As I approach, its shape becomes clear, obscured only briefly by the frightening, all-too-close silhouette of a passing manta ray.  I can almost make out its shape—it’s round, that much is for sure—but I can’t quite get a grasp of its color, or the markings barely visible on its side.  I swim further downward, reaching out to grab it—

—and suddenly, I’m back to the surface, pulled rudely upward by the safety harness reserved for those novice divers (such as myself) who drop out of sight.  This is the sort of frustration that Sophie Barker’s Earthbound makes a habit of forcing upon its listeners.

There’s very little dispute as to whether or not Sophie Barker can sing, because as any fan of Zero 7 will tell you, she has a lovely, mellow, whispery tone that draws you in and gently caresses you even as her words can cut and scald.  It’s like hearing a more subtle and refined Dido, all pleasant tone and no vibrato to speak of, a voice beautiful enough to enthrall indie rockers and soccer moms alike in its gentle, blanketing way.  That voice is an instrument that could be put to spectacular use in the right hands.  Earthbound is Barker’s debut album, finally finding release in the United States almost exactly one year after its original UK release, and it admittedly does allow Barker to shine on a couple of its scant eight tracks.  Mostly, however, it’s an album of half-formed ideas and rote downtempo cirrus clouds, an album that tries desperately to stay out of the way of Barker’s vocals rather than enhance them.

Earthbound actually achieves magic on one track, a song called “Angel”.  “She laughs when she wants to cry, / She smiles but she doesn’t know why,” Barker whispers over a nearly nonexistent acoustic guitar and a sparse electronic percussion line, and she’s off to a good start.  What really makes the song work, however, is the way Barker’s voice is also used in place of synthesizers, wordless melodies placed on top of one another to create extra harmonies, ghostly vocals, sometimes backward-masked, often hidden in the background for the sake of thickening up the mix.  Her melodies here are precise and a little bit foreboding, perfect for a song whose title might have been more descriptive preceded by “Fallen”.  Opening track “Secret” is almost as lovely, here as much for Barker’s words as her voice—“Don’t treat me like a fool, / I’m more intelligent than you,” she says, and while the words read like the banter of a petulant, precocious ten-year-old, the way Barker enunciates “more intelligent” cuts straight to the very adult bone of her intended target.  “Do you want to let me into your soul?,” she asks, and only the most jaded listener would have the courage to resist.

Unfortunately, once that song is over, heavy helpings of reverb and delay take the place of actual songwriting.  “Stop Me” does have a decent guitar line hiding in it, but all the delay makes it sound curiously monotone, backing up some slow, bored singing and placed on top of a drum line that could only qualify as “adequate”.  “Wintertime” sounds like the sequel to Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”, slide guitars and all, but the overproduction and insistence on making everything sound as soupy as possible prevent it from having nearly the impact that Mazzy Star’s version once did.  Conversely, “On My Way Home” and “Start Me” present some interesting ideas that could possibly have developed into something truly interesting, if only they were given the time—the two-and-change minutes of “On My Way Home” end before the song can truly explore the darkness it hints at, and under four minutes isn’t nearly enough to let “Start Me” build.  It’s as if Barker (along with sometime songwriting partner and Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie) runs out of ideas and just gives up on the song, content to present it as is without allowing it to grow into something more.

Barker has one other album currently available in the UK, called Lullaby.  The album contains renditions of popular children’s playtime songs and lullabies, all of them delivered in Barker’s signature whisper.  Her voice is perfectly suited to such material, and it’s just as effective caressing adult ears as it is children’s.  The rub here, then, is in the songwriting—at its best, Barker can convey a quiet, calculating, sinister beauty, but at its worst, which happens far too often on Earthbound, it barely gets past indifference.  If the quiet is all you seek, Earthbound may be your cure for the noise of everyday life.  It’s in attempting to swim beneath that quiet that you are bound to find yourself trapped in shallow waters.

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