Fanshaw is the stage name of Olivia Fetherstonhaugh, a Vancouver musician making her solo debut with Dark Eyes. She tries a lot of different things on this album, with varying degrees of success, but the default seems to be sparse arrangements that emphasize her breathy, dark-sounding voice. Some of these songs work better than others, but she makes a solid effort. The problem is that not much here gets above that “solid” level. Fetherstonhaugh is a good singer and the arrangements on Dark Eyes are interesting, but the songs themselves aren’t very memorable.
The album opens with “Diana”, a mostly a cappella song that finds Fanshaw harmonizing with herself, creating a wordless rhythm. A simple bass guitar adds to that rhythm while Fanshaw sings the main melody and lyrics in a voice barely above a whisper. It’s a bracing start to the album, sonically intriguing and a bit unusual. The title track comes next, and it’s a more traditional dark indie-pop song. A simple, quiet drumbeat backs a slightly scuzzy-sounding electric guitar, as Fanshaw sings about a…woman who’s a gold-digger that shouldn’t be trusted? The lyrics on the album are a bit surreal, but they mostly seem to be slightly off-kilter relationship stories. The only thing that really keeps the title track from being a bore is the inclusion of a Micro-Korg organ. It’s a very harsh organ sound that sounds intrusive on this track but also livens it up. It’s unusual arrangement choices like these that keep the listener’s attention when the music and lyrics aren’t quite up to the job.
A case in point is the next song, “Vegas.” Fanshaw recruits a lap steel guitar player to give her story of pining for a lost lover an alt-country feel. But without a clever arrangement, the song comes off sounding like second-rate Neko Case without the clever lyrical imagery. A good portion of the middle of the album drags for similar reasons. Fetherstonhaugh’s voice doesn’t have much personality on its own, so the songwriting and arrangements need to be more interesting. They aren’t. When Fanshaw again makes a conscious arranging choice, on “O Sailor”, things immediately pick up. Not only does the song effectively mine a slow-fast-slow-fast tempo structure, the addition of a prominent French horn countermelody makes the song sound unique and cool.
“Rebecca” is the most robust song on the album, featuring a full band including a lead guitar player (Fanshaw handles the rest of the guitar on the album herself) and the return of that harsh organ sound. Once again, the active arrangement makes the song work better than the more sparsely orchestrated tracks on the album. That is really the story of Dark Eyes as an album. When Fanshaw makes a bold or unusual instrumentation choice, the song works. When she more or less goes it alone, the songs just lie there. There aren’t enough of those bold choices here to make the album truly exciting, but it’s enough to keep it from being lackluster. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Dark Eyes is, well, average.