A roomful of friends can't elevate this tepid set above the humdrum.
Rose Cousins is a Canadian-born, Boston-based singer-songwriter whose latest full-length, We Have Made a Spark, is a collaboration with a number of Boston musicians. Impeccably recorded and performed, We Have Made a Spark benefits from the contributions of a number of talented people, including but not limited to Zachariah Hickman on upright bass and organ, Charlie Rose on pedal steel, banjo and dobro, and Laura Cortese on violin and backing vocals. Despite this variety of input, the record suffers from a dearth of memorable songs. After a strong start, it settles into a kind of languid dullness.
The lead song is also the album’s best. "The Darkness" is an excellent tune that benefits from accents of dobro and mandocello and sultry vocals reminiscent of Neko Case. The band is tight and Cousin's stylings are simultaneously energetic and world-weary, but the real secret is found in the song itself, possessing as it does a clear melody, lively harmonies and an engagingly complex arrangement.
This is, unfortunately, the album's high point. Follow-up tune "The Shell" is well performed but a good bit less memorable, while "One Way" drops the energy level even further. The first of the record's many downtempo, pretty but forgettable tunes, "One Way" sets the template for much of what is to follow. Cousin's voice here is minimally accompanied by piano and a hint of strings, but the instrumentation is minimal and the song is left to do the heavy lifting. It's not quite up to the task.
And so it goes. The listener is left waiting for another burst of sonic interest a la "The Darkness", but that wait will be in vain. Cousins slips into standard singer-songwriter mode, and her default setting is mellow acoustic strumming, a bit of low-key keyboard or percussion, and pretty, breathy vocals. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but the sameness of the tunes grows tiresome after a while.
The news isn't entirely bad. "For the Best" contains some lively keyboards, and throughout, Cousins is adept at expressing wistfulness and a fair degree of longing in her songs. "If I Should Fall Behind" manages to simultaneously express defiance and anxiety, with the added bonus of Mark Erelli's effective harmony vocals.
Too much of the rest blurs together into a great wash of undifferentiated downtempo prettiness. The central portion of this album is made up of songs like "What I See", "Go First", "All the Stars", "For the Best" and "This Light," all of which remain difficult to call to mind even after repeated listenings. Cousins can sing, but there is little here that really stands out from the pack.
It's difficult to criticize a record as well-performed as this one -- the musicianship is competent, the sound is nicely balanced and it's a professional effort all around. Music is about more than competence, however, and apart from a handful of moments, there isn't much here that can be called exciting. Listeners partial to mellow female vocals might find something to enjoy, but overall, We Have Made a Spark lacks that difficult-to-quantify element that would elevate it from its peers. A spark it may have, but there is little to fan it into flame.