[10 June 2008]
From the cover photo featuring dark storm clouds and an eerie-looking army of children to the foreboding strings which mark the first minute of opener “Girl Laying Down”, Anna Ternheim’s newest record begins a bit ominously. Yet, about a minute in, the strings dissipate, allowing for a snappy, rhythmic (yet still darkly colored) piano figure to bring a touch of lightness.
And, therein lies a perfect example of the dichotomies which make Halfway to Fivepoints, Ternheim’s third record, a beautiful experience. Mixing dark and light musical shading, songs that sound mainstream and others which seem more obscure, feelings of distance and detachment with an inherent sweetness, the album allows listeners to experience a range of sounds and emotions, all presented by the Swedish chanteuse with a gorgeous, enigmatic voice.
The music which fills Halfway to Fivepoints is a blend of Eisley’s vocal whimsy, the inner torment expressed by Tori Amos, and the expansiveness explored in the piano/guitar/string textures of Coldplay. The nature of this sonic concoction and the sweet mystery present in Ternheim’s voice makes this collection of twelve tracks a frontrunner in the race for most intriguing album of the year.
Although there is quality material spaced throughout, the album’s best (and most interesting) tracks are consistently placed within its opening half. After the scene-setting of “Girl Laying Down” comes perhaps the record’s best cut, “Bridges”. A tick-tock rhythm and an unconventionally melodic piano figure guide the song’s opening seconds before Ternheim enters with vocals layered to ethereal perfection. Her quirky clave playing leads an altogether quirky percussion section that also features tambourine, xylophone, and glockenspiel. The effect of the instruments (as well as of the slithering blues guitar of Staffan Andersson) is to add a bit of animation to an otherwise melancholy sound. “All I want is you / All I need is you / Everything slips away / The thought of us gets me through the day”, Ternheim sings through the refrain, confessing a bit of sunshine where there seems mostly to be clouds.
“Today is a Good Day” and “Little Lies” follow, combining with their predecessor for a 1-2-3 punch sequence that is so good, the otherwise solid tracks to follow have a hard time competing. The former employs the poppiest, sunniest hook on the record; another artist might have been tempted to make the song a breezy anthem, yet Ternheim still shows restraint, making the song cheery in comparison to its musical neighbors without going overboard. The latter is a cover of the Christine McVie-penned Fleetwood Mac tune; in Ternheim’s hands, the pop ditty is an intimate folk tune. When Peter LeMarc’s harmonica enters approximately 1:40 in, the song becomes full-blown, sweet lonesome.
The album’s second half is good and contains some excellent moments, including those found on “No Subtle Men” and the gentle, closing title track. However, the tunes there are either a bit more conventional or Ternheim’s subtle style becomes a bit more familiar by that point. In any case, the effect is not nearly as poignant as it is early on.
Ternheim is a fabulous vocalist with a knack for penning tunes filled with emotion and intimacy, backed by instruments that suggest (alternately) detachment and urgency. The combination of elements is an intoxicating one. Halfway to Fivepoints is a wonderful listen.