Before offering my review of Hope Alane’s Pink Sky Blue, I should admit to two personal biases that colored my preconceptions of this album. First, I’ve always been wary of albums that contain fewer than ten songs. Five or six songs constitute an EP, but an LP should be comprised of a solid ten. Ten, after all, is such a nice, sturdy number and connotes a sense of finality and completion. So, when I see albums with seven, eight, or even nine songs, I have two worries: 1) the artist doesn’t have that many satisfactory songs; and 2) falling short of ten songs, the album will contain filler. Secondly, I’m also wary of rock outfits that lack a drummer. Sure, I’m all for progress, but I’ve heard too many singers or groups that rely on drum machines whose music sounds emotionally void or rigid. I know, I know, there are many exceptions — Soft Cell’s remake of “Where Did Our Love Go,” for one, is one of the more moving songs of the last few decades. Still, look what happened to both R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins when their drummers left the flock. Nothing nice, that’s for sure.
Having confessed to my own musical biases, I realize part of my job is to put aside such prejudiced proclivities and be objective; Pink Sky Blue makes this task somewhat effortless. If you were never to read the credits in the album jacket, you might never notice the drums are programmed. Sure, if you pay attention to the subtleties of the songs, you’ll immediately notice the drum machines; the songs, however, are so well- produced that the electronic elements don’t distract from the feel of the songs. Moreover, they are used for texture, not to conceal a lack of musical skill. This is apparent by the other instruments used on this album: organs, cello, glockenspiel, piano, sleigh bells, tambourine, triangle, and slide, just to name a few (and there are many more). Clearly, with so many diverse musicians in tow, Alane’s decision to use drum machines was an artistic choice, not an only option.
The opening track, “Old, Old Friends”, signals that this album is an eclectic affair. While Alane sings “I’m so glad that we’re old friends / And we’ll grow old together”, an acoustic guitar furiously strums in the background. These, however, are not the curious parts of the song. As Alane purrs the lyrics over the song, a series of jaunty handclaps punctuates the tempo of the song, while a high-pitched whir that sounds like a pedal steel sucking helium flies back and forth over the song. Think of doing that quirky Ashley Simpson jig on LSD, and you’ve got the feel of this song. This is a compliment, by the way, and not meant to imply the song sounds goofy or ridiculous. Instead, the song has a specific feel — upbeat and peculiar.
From here, the album covers a lot of musical territory, sometimes succeeding, sometimes falling flat. “Against the Sky” is one of the more musically-restrained songs, and benefits from the focused approach. Featuring a slowly strummed acoustic guitar, ethereal slide, and lulling vocals, the song is reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s beautiful “Fade Into You” — that is, until it soars a bit too high in the chorus and sounds like the candle-lighting, getting-in-touch-with-your-inner-goddess sentimentality of Enya. “Spinning World” sounds like a Lilith Fair throwback, an atmospheric rocker aimed right at adult contemporary radio. As Alane sings, “Wrap my arms around this world / Wrap my arms around you”, swirling chimes dance in the background. Other songs, however, trip on their own ambition, particularly “Chemistry”. This tune sounds like an intentional plagiarizing of Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”, right down to the refrain of “It’s chemistry in motion”. Even the melody sounds lifted, though “Chemistry” lacks the new wave cool of Dolby’s classic.
If all of this sounds diverse, you’re right. This diversity, however, undermines the overall feel of the album, ultimately denying Alane a distinct voice. Each song sounds like a carefully planned collage of noises, but the collages don’t sound connected in any manner. Hence, the overall feel of the album is scattershot. Sure, Alane’s songs are interesting and sometimes captivating, but one of the hallmarks of a good album is unity, the feeling that each song segues into the next with some sense of thematic and musical harmony. That feeling is lacking on Pink Sky Blue, perhaps because such a quality is no longer valued in today’s music industry, but more likely because Alane is painting with too many colors simply for the sake of doing so.
Still, Pink Sky Blue is admirable for its fearlessness, and definitely worth a listen. Alane is part folk singer, part abstract expressionist, and certain songs will have you reaching for the repeat button. If, however, you are a person that only buys albums that are consistent in both sound and quality, you’ll probably be disappointed. Indeed, one of my biases proved correct: Pink Sky Blue is partly the accomplished work of an ambitious artist, partly the kind of filler that shows up on albums with less than ten songs. That just sounds so High Fidelity-smug, doesn’t it?