An exceptional, unique take on orchestral folk that's full of heart, beauty and nature.
Few artists manage to charm their listeners as easily and quickly as Dana Falconberry does on her newest LP, Leelanau. Full of perfectly placed orchestration, rustic, warm production, smooth melodies and best of all, fragile yet alluring vocals, the album is a unique joy to listen to from beginning to end. Although it’s not significantly diverse (the songs sort of follow along the same path), the similarities among the pieces arguably give the album a grand sense of continuity, making it feel like one majestic statement.
Leelanau sees Falconberry saturate “the majesty of nature [into] orchestral pop-folk” as she finds inspiration in the peacefulness of her childhood ventures to the Leelanau peninsula of the Great Lake State. Whereas her previous releases were quite simple and faint, this album finds Falconberry’s wonderfully childlike voice complemented by gorgeous orchestration from a six-piece band. Of her songwriting, she says, “I used to write more about love and heartbreak, but I find now that I am more interested in complex ideas and subtle emotions rather than the sweeping melodramatic stuff.” In essence, Leelanau revolves around stories (both factious and not) of memory, place, youth, joy, loss, longing, regret, and optimism. Both musically and thematically, then, Leelanau feels like a little sister to Sufjan Steven’s brilliant Michigan and Illinois works, as well as a companion piece to anything Joanna Newsom has done recently. It’s all quite masterful.
“Birch Bark” opens the album with a mixture homemade percussion, folksy guitar work, gentle string casings, plenty of arpeggios, and of course, Falconberry’s lovely timbre. The track constantly oscillates between two sections (one quick and one slow), which in and of itself makes the piece intriguing. There’s a great sense of warmth here, too, even if it’s a bit more melancholic and nostalgic lyrically. Finally, the harmonies are sublime. Right off the bat, Falconberry and company prove that Leelanau is something special.
In contrast, “Lake Charlevoix” is more danceable and subdued; it allows the space between the notes to express as much as the music itself. “Sleeping Bear” is a brief poem highlighted by its haunting strings. It segues seamlessly into “Crooked River,” which is full of enchanting childhood remembrance expressed through more exquisite harmonies and pastoral sounds. Like the entire album, this track would fit perfectly in a Wes Anderson film (especially his most recent opus, Moonrise Kingdom). “Copperleaf” continues the remarkableness with its dynamic changes and lavish production; you can almost feel nature as you listen.
The rest of the record sustains the magic, as listeners are treated to more exceptional songs separated by simpler (but equally lovable) interludes. The album concludes with its title track; it’s the longest offering here, and it’s also the most grandiose, avant-garde and epic. All the elements are taken to a higher level; the orchestration is fuller, the harmonies are thicker, and the intensity shifts throughout (some moments are quite lush while others are nearly silent). It’s pretty incredible overall.
Dana Falconberry and her musicians have created something utterly magnificent with Leelanau. I’ve rarely heard an album that captures the almost intangible feelings associated with nature, childhood, nostalgia, love, loss, and hope this well. In an industry that seems to prioritize commerciality, mediocrity and sameness, artists like this are an absolute breath of fresh air. Falconberry deserves far more attention and acclaim than she’ll likely ever receive, which is a damn shame. While she isn’t at the same level as some genre contemporaries (like Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists), she’s not far off. If she can keep growing and exploring her artistry, her next few releases may just be masterpieces.