Sounding a little like a less commercialized (and less compelling) version of Fiona Apple, or perhaps a non-rocking Quasi, Ursa Minor plays Fender Rhodes-driven, mid-tempo songs exploring the usual subjects — bad relationships, self-absorption — songs which, in customary singer-songwriter fashion, eschew hooks or discernible variety in favor of an intense earnestness that is supposed to put them across.
But it’s hard to intend to sound sincere, as this usually leads to precisely the sort of vocal affectations heard on this album: unnatural phrasing, arbitrary yodeling, unpredictable register shifts, emphatic enunciations — all tricks that attempt to manufacture emotional significance when the words are not entrusted to carry it on their own. Michelle Casillas has a clear, capable voice that she uses to make her material easy to hear without commanding a listener’s concentration. Joni Mitchell appears to be one of her influences, but Casillas lacks Mitchell’s range and subtlety, as well as Mitchell’s unwavering intent to challenge and confound. Combined with the tasteful arrangements, her singing winds up feeling too slick, lacking the sort of distinction that would differentiate her from any other hopeful for the Lilith Fairground.
Included on Silent Moving Picture, and featured prominently in its promotional materials, is Ursa Minor’s cover of “Summertime Rolls”, which substantially improves on Jane’s Addiction’s bloated, somnambulant original by making it shorter and less histrionic. But recording a Jane’s Addiction song amounts to a form of musical recidivism, compounding the original offense of Jane’s Addiction’s existence by reminding us of it years later. It’s bad enough that they are touring again. Raising the profile of such a relentless self-promoter as Perry Farrell, even with the hope of trying to leech off some of his undeserved success, shows a clear want of judgment. By paying homage to the band that epitomizes style over substance, Ursa Minor invites a dismissive approach to its own creations.
Though some tracks are marked with surface embellishments — “The Frame” features a faux Parisian accordion; “Steady”, a bouncy drum pattern (it sounds like it could be a song by Spoon); and “Silent Moving Picture”, a loop of atonal guitar distortion, perhaps to suggest the sound of spinning reels — these do not prevent the album as a whole from suffering from a flat consistency, with every song evoking the same mood of determined seriousness. The lyrics are usually clichés — “Deep in my soul is a hole / It’s tattooed with your name on it” (from “The Frame”), or “Lost what you were looking for / Guess its back to where we were before” (from “Down Like That Again”) are characteristic — the kind of empty phrases that enlist the listener to invest them with portent. Clichés generally make for the best lyrics for this very reason; they are always generic enough to be generally applicable, and they only disappoint those who hope for something provocative, those who want to find something more than a reflection of themselves in the music they listen to. Of course, there are lots of better places to look for provocation and intellectual stimulation than pop music, but music this pretentious should at least provide that payoff. Smoothing any potential edges and assuring accessibility seems to have been the overriding priority for Silent Moving Picture, and the astonishing degree to which the brain-trust behind Ursa Minor has succeeded can be measured by the lack of anything truly memorable.
There’s an undeniable fascination in difficult art, whose anomalies and idiosyncrasies force us to return to it with an active, inquisitive mind. But this pleasant, accomplished album encourages a listener in his passivity, circumventing any need for a struggle to understand it that might make the songs stick in his mind. Nothing goes against the grain, and so it washes over us, slowly contributing to the erosion of our expectations.