[4 September 2008]
Although they have been in the game since 2000, the two ladies who call themselves Elsiane didn’t drop a full-length album until last year, when Hybrid hit Canadian record stores. And now with that record finally out in the United States, Elsiane might just garner some much deserved attention. These trip-hoppers from the USA’s neighbor to the north clearly know how to recreate that mellow, hypnotic atmosphere utilized in the ‘90s by big names like Massive Attack, Portishead, etc. But, mostly because of front-woman Elsianne Caplette’s voice, the duo’s music sounds natural, rather than contrived. Her unique vocals, which are slightly less-than-perfect, add depth and an organic feel. And yes, she sings with that desperate, longing emotion heard before, but Caplette’s voice sometimes works as an instrument rather than the focal point. Although some listeners might be turned off by her “different” vocals, others will instantly fall in love. They help her stand out amongst the plethora of female singers who have appeared on tracks by electronica acts over the years. And Caplette’s shiver-inducing voice is the perfect match to her and partner Stephane Sotto’s world-influenced trip-hop, with Caplette providing the international touch, since she hails from Peru.
These two talented ladies get right into sending chills up your spine on Hybrid‘s opening track and lead-single “Vaporous”. The lush instrumentation paired with Caplette’s haunting vocals displays the duo at its finest. As she waxes poetic over creeping strings and a basic, albeit mesmerizing, beat, don’t be surprised if you’re left in a trance. And rather than build off the cruising high created by “Vaporous”, Elsiane slows it down. They flirt with minimalism on “Mend (To Fix, To Repair)”, a track that is beautiful in its simplicity. With fantastic drums, particularly the snare hits, behind her, Caplette takes the focus off her voice. As previously mentioned, she uses her vocals as an instrument to add depth rather than steal the song’s thunder.
But as strong and striking as Caplette’s vocals can be, they have a tendency to become grating as the album progresses. Part of the problem is that she uses very little variety in her delivery. And when she does mix things up, you are more than just intrigued by the accompanying music. Like on “Morphing”, where Caplette searches high and low as she sings, never settling and never fading into the background. Besides displaying her raw talent, this track proves that Caplette is capable of more than what you hear on most of Hybrid.
Strangely enough, two of the album’s most intriguing tracks are sans vocals and less than two minutes in length. First there is “Assemblage Plant”, which stands out solely based on its simple beauty. Especially gripping is the perfectly executed guitar work that continues throughout the short, but topnotch track. And the lulling industrial drum beat in the background provides the perfect pace. The other instrumental, “In a Crisis ...”, works in the same way. A stellar, albeit accessible, violin performance highlights the song that basically acts as a prelude to the final pair of songs. But don’t think that Caplette and Sotto only flex their musical muscles on these tracks. “Across the Stream” and its tingling acoustic guitar strums set the mood better than any vocalist could, and they somehow stand above the rising strings and dynamic drums. Similarly, “Final Escape” draws you in with its intriguing pots and pans beat, though the song itself doesn’t offer anything new or different.
And it just wouldn’t be right to leave out “Prozaic”, which sounds the most like a Dummy rip-off. To be fair, it was bound to happen. While Caplette’s voice is completely different from Beth Gibbons’, the guitar and drums ooze “Sour Times”. But the horns on “Prozaic”do help it from being a total carbon-copy. And, perhaps making a testament to not being labeled a Portishead cover-act, the duo turns it around on “Ecclesia”, which is every bit a haunting Elsiane original. And that tempo-change at the two-minute mark helps to bring the track above run-of-the-mill electronica. To call “Ecclesia” poppy would be a stretch, but its ear candy nonetheless.
For all their strengths, Elsiane still has work to do if they want to stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries. In particular, Caplette needs to experiment more on the mic and further bring her South American influence to the table. As a debut, though, this is certainly a strong indication of what Elsiane is capable of recording. Let’s just hope they continue to grow and not settle into stagnation as so many trip-hop acts have done in the past.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/elsiane-hybrid/