A great deal less than the sum of its parts, this album is best left to romantic interludes and background listening.
When I reviewed Caroline's debut CD single Where's My Love earlier in the year, I dismissed both the music and singer as inconsequential. However, when given the opportunity to review her debut album, I decided the give the Japanese singer another chance. I hoped that with the space of a full-length, Ms. Lufkin would use the opportunity to break her music and voice out of the painfully pigeonholed space her CD-single put her into. Unfortunately, Murmurs plays it safe, offering a disc that is as pleasant as it is fleeting.
In her bio, it's a little surprising to read that in her native Japan, her work as the voice for pop strumpets' demo tracks eventually brought a major label offer way. She turned it down, seeking the comfort of the more homegrown Temporary Residence label, but listening to Murmurs it's not difficult to see why labels both big and small have been eager to release her voice to the masses. Built around the sort of exotic-yet -nameless accent that comes from living on both sides of the Pacific, Caroline is blessed with a girlish and effortlessly twee voice. Bjork is an easy comparison, but where the Icelandic singer can be by turns aggressive, vulnerable, enigmatic, and sexual, Caroline's voice is detached. Her performances are breathy and airy to the point of being nonexistent. Caroline doesn't have an identity to call her own, and she lacks the presence and personality that makes people like Laetitia Sadier, Goldfrapp, and Beth Gibbons such compelling frontwomen.
But the biggest stumbling block Murmurs fails to overcome is the programming and production. The beats remain negligible at best. Even the Postal Service at their most saccharine still brought a respectable gravitas to the musical side of the equation. Murmurs begins twinkly and ends twinkly. It's the musical equivalent stringing up Christmas lights around your window. Sure, it looks pretty for that one month of the year, but you'll want pull those damned things down yourself if you still see them in February. It's all pretty, it's all harmless, and it's utterly boring. One almost wonders what kind of beats a major label budget would've brought her, but performing around these stale beats and minor organic instrumentation makes her trifling voice stand out even more.
At the end of the day, though, it's hard to be too difficult on Caroline, simply because there isn't much here to tear apart. Murmurs is almost proud to be as inoffensive and easy to digest as possible. You could throw this on in any remotely quasi-romantic situation and it would be perfect. Just look at the tracklisting -- "Sunrise", "Everylittlething", "All I Need", "I'll Leave My Heart Behind" -- if you aren't necking by track four, you've got some problems. The ambition Caroline puts forth can be categorized as ambivalence. She's probably not looking to break the mold, and I can't really fault her for that. If you're one of those people who usually throws on music for background listening you can forget about, Murmurs will be a perfect addition to your collection. But then again, if you're one of those people, you've probably stopped reading this review a long time ago.