A Fine Frenzy – One Cell In The Sea

A Fine Frenzy
One Cell In The Sea

A Fine Frenzy’s (aka singer-songwriter Alison Sudol) debut album One Cell In The Sea combines gently percolating to sweeping musical arrangements of piano, keyboards, and strings, shaped into mid-tempo numbers and ballads, with Alison’s clear, but slightly heathery, straightforward vocal delivery, and deals mainly with the emotional upheaval of romantic relationships – perfect fodder for the Starbucks Coffee set, and apparently VH-1, since A Fine Frenzy has been spotlighted as a “You Oughta Know” artist.

Overall, however, A Fine Frenzy is still a cut above the average Starbucks chanteuse. There is a density and depth to Alison’s lyrics and an engaging nature to her varied vocals and instrumentation. The sheer breadth of musical instruments utilized lifts many of the songs out of the plainer, “girl-with-guitar” (or piano…or keyboards) style (but even if the sonics were stripped away, the song structures and vocals would hold up well in an acoustic setting). Alison’s voice glides with ease between more hushed, melancholy tones, mid-range musings, plaintive, emotive vocals, and higher, airy singing. The song structures, for the most part, are solid, if similar, and lend a supportive skeleton, while the musical dynamics and accents never get too sleepy or saccharine.

On the other hand, many of the lyrics-heavy songs suffer from similarity, with that familiar type of structure which needs to be more varied and distinctive to make an impression on the listener. Most of the songs adhere to a format of short-phrase vocals and a sing-song feel with pleasant musical accompaniment that doesn’t push any boundaries.

Alison’s vocals resemble a mix of Hayley Alker of Helsinki, Kate Tucker (of Kate Tucker and the Sons Of Sweden), and Beth Orton when she’s more subdued or singing in a throaty, feathery tone and not pushing out her vocals. On the more expressive chorus sections of songs, her voice is not as powerful or wide-ranging or lyrically stark as Tori Amos or Regina Spektor, but her vocal delivery sometimes approaches the style of those singers.

Highlights include the opener “Come On, Come Out”, with Alison’s wistfully plaintive vocal tone matched by the layers of keyboard notes, piano, flute, drumbeat, and cymbal shimmer, and the lyrics-centered song, “The Minnow & The Trout”, where Alison balances lighter, breathy accents against rougher, plainer vocals as she sings “We were one cell in the sea in the beginning and what we’re made of is all the same. We’re not that different after all”.

True to the title “Whisper”, Alison is hushed and whispery on the verses of this slower-paced song, sing-talking against picked guitar, where her fingers can be heard gliding over the strings, and on the chorus parts her vocals lift upwards, hitting airy highs.

The standout track of the album is the stirring, solidly hopeful “You Picked Me”. Alison starts off sounding a bit like Chan Marshall, sing-talking in a darker, husky tone, navigating around the strings, drums, cymbals, bell-like notes, and sweeter backing vocals. Then she lays it all out on the chorus, as her voice and the music swell, and she fluidly modulates between plaintive, mid-range tones and sweetly delicate heights, building up emotionally on successive chorus sections.

Another bright spot is the mid-tempo “Liar Liar”, which begins with old-fashioned accordion notes that fade and give way to piano runs, tinkling bell notes, drums, strings, and a shaken-sand sound, as Alison inflects with a throaty, velvety tone on the verses and with a strong, straightforward delivery on the chorus segments, accented with airy background vocals.

On “Last Of Days” Alison reverses the traditional “verse, chorus, verse” formula of soft verse and loud chorus by singing lightly on the verse and coming down on the chorus, all aching and melancholic against the piano, bell ting, and drumbeat.

Lastly, “Hope For The Hopeless” contains the finest parts of what A Fine Frenzy has to offer, starting with a lower bass guitar line, guitar and keyboard notes, and slower pace, which soon accelerates to a mid-tempo beat, and builds up in sound and emotion, as Alison’s sighing and bittersweet vocals rise and fall with longing.