Review by Jo-Ann Greene
Some bands are like adventure tourists, constantly striking off toward new musical pastures as if determined to prove they've been everywhere and tried everything. But Sian Alice Group don't wear their eclecticism as a boastful badge of honor, preferring a much more subtle approach that enfolds myriad genres into their dreamy, experimental music. The closest analogy in feel, although not in sound, is Keith Tippett's early work with Julie Driscoll. There's the same intensity to Sian Alice's 59.59, a similar attention to detail and arrangement, and an equally breathtaking sense of musical adventure. However, Tippett focused exclusively on melding jazz and rock together, while Sian Alice's musical experimentations go far, far further. Avant-garde blues is explored on "Way Down to Heaven," rock and ambience unite on "Larsen B," rich harmonics swirl across "Contours," and C&W and folk seep through "Sleep," while clubby beats sinuously wind around "Motionless." Interspersed among these songs are short "Interludes," which either augment a longer track or clean the musical palette for the next course. Every piece spotlights a different facet of the group's sound, as well as multi-instrumentalists Rupert Clervaux and Ben Crook's many talents, each variously highlighting the keyboards, guitars, or rhythms. Overhead, Sian Ahern's gorgeous, ethereal vocals and Sasha Vine's violin beautifully enhance the atmospheres within. 59.59 is an astounding album, quite unlike anything one's ever heard before. There's a tension at its core and an incendiary aura that seeps across the set, no matter how dreamy the atmospheres or lullaby-like the song. But with Sian Alice Group's emphasis on moody melodies and sublime atmospheres, the set's textures and feel linger long after the final note is played.
Sian Alice Group
[Social Registry; 2008]
Naming your group after yourself usually means one of three things: a) You're a jazz musician, b) You're the guitarist in a rock band who wants to be a jazz musician, or c) You're a rampant egoist. But Sian Alice Ahern, leader of the London, UK-based Sian Alice Group, is none of these things-- as a frontwoman, she's as likely to recede as take the lead. With her band's debut charting transformations from psychedelic rock, pastoral folk, and piano-lounge balladry into analog-synthtronica, free-jazz breakdowns, pounding Afro-tech grooves, and avant-classical composition, Ahern is the sort of vocalist who patiently waits for the songs to settle into shape before stepping up to the mic.
In their open-ended, exploratory approach to songwriting, Sian Alice Group-- co-founded with Rupert Clervaux and Ben Crook-- are logical additions to the Social Registry stable. But they'd be even more at home on the early 1990s Too Pure roster, which seemed to produce an inordinate amount of female-fronted bands (Stereolab, Laika, Th' Faith Healers, Pram) who severed psych from its 60s-rock roots and applied its principles to non-rock musical forms, emphasizing the music's hypnotic, repetitive qualities-- and, more often than not, sublimating their singers into a textural detail.
Ahern spends 59.59 vacillating between presence and absence. But her turns in the spotlight contribute a considerable amount of heat to an album mostly set on simmer, no more so than on the sinister swamp blues of second song "Way Down to Heaven": "I'm on my way to heaven now," Ahern declares, but the dirty PJ Harvey riff sounds like it's pulling her down in the other direction before setting the song alight in a blaze of distortion and ear-piercing organ tones. "Contours" is another early standout, with Ahern's choral vocal leading the hazy, synth-swathed hymnal before the drums come crashing in and start hunting for Caribou.
59.59 could use a few more fiery moments like these; as the album settles into its more temperate second half-- marked by sullen, straight-forward piano lullabies like "Murder" and "Heartless"-- the titular album length seems less a product of fortuitous circumstance than a premeditated goal, with the tracklist deliberately padded to arrive at the numerically neat running time. But the beauty of Sian Alice Group is that formalism is ultimately a temporary condition, and that the band is capable of creating highly effective music even when they stray far from traditional torch-song territory: "Days of Grace III" is built on a striking, repeated piano motif that accrues an almost "Tubular Bells"-like tension, while the closing, free-floating instrumental "Complete Affection" (featuring Spiritualized/Spring Heel Jack member John Coxon on guitar and Gang Gang Dance's Brian DeGraw on piano) is messy, pained and cathartic-- like all good crying fits should be.
-Stuart Berman, April 02, 2008