Appearances, as we all know, can sometimes be deceiving. Take for instance, Becalmed, a collection of piano-based instrumentals from Syndey, Australia’s Sophie Hutchings. Heralded as a musician who excels at songwriting that ranges from meditative to epic, one might expect the sort of ambient listening experience that dips into Eno-esque territory, where lushly textured soundscapes can be absorbed actively or passively with equal satisfaction. Examining Hutchings’ Myspace page however, she also cites influences as disparaging as Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and Chicago experimental rock act Califone. Given the former’s penchant for emotionally exhausting orchestral works and the latter’s knack for mellow yet sophisticated folk tunes, you’d think that Hutchings’ eight-track debut would bring a bit of quirkiness or some unsuspecting harmonic twists to the chill-out session. As it turns out, virtually everything here is performed with the sort of predictable diatonic consonance that ultimately – and sadly – renders Becalmed a forgettable piece of New Age hooey.
Yet as unlikely as it is that someone on an Aussie indie label (Preservation Records) would dabble with the harmless atmospheres of artists like George Winston or Jim Brickman, Becalmed’s cover image does hint at the generally unaffecting compositions within; anyone familiar with Wassily Kandinsky’s Squares with Concentric Circles will immediately note the muted quality of designer Mark Gowing’s orb, especially when compared with the vibrant color of Kandinsky’s 1913 abstract masterpiece. There’s no mistaking the beauty of both Hutchings’ music and the accompanying artwork, but the resulting experience is still somewhat lackluster.
Becalmed opens with an 11-minute piece entitled “Seventeen,” which Hutchings originally penned at the titular age. It’s been given some exposition and development since that time, but the devices she employs in this initial statement (the frequent use of silence as music, gently rippling arpeggiations that work the piano’s middle range, melancholic chord progressions, etc.) pervade the record’s remaining tracks. It’s an unquestionably gorgeous performance by a woman who clearly knows how to manipulate the keyboard, but the emotional apex that arrives around the 8:00 mark feels more akin to the ascent up a small hill rather than some daunting crag.
“Sunlight Zone” follows a similar – albeit condensed – trajectory, with plaintive piano playing from Hutchings while guest violinist Jeremy Kong adds occasional drones that function more as texture than melody. It’s the stuff of movie scores, perhaps for that scene in which a character takes a moment to reflect after some horrific event has transpired. The track shimmers and swells in all the ways you might expect from the music of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, but it also carries the same sense of trite sentimentality.
By the middle third of Becalmed, Hutchings begins to push the envelope a little bit, with impressive results. The unnamed third track is the first to feature an obvious melodic hook, effortlessly segueing into “Portrait of Haller,” which finds family member Jamie Hutching on percussion and injecting the album with its first bona fide groove. The presence of the drums cannot be understated here; after nearly twenty minutes of gently wafting ambience, Hutchings’ music has some new life breathed into it with the addition of a rhythm section. Disappointingly though, it turns out to be ephemeral, gone in a fraction of the time it took arrive.
The other notable cuts of the bunch are “Toby Lee” (which utilizes the saw), and “After Most,” in which Hutchings really steps outside of the niche she’s carved for herself by receding from the picture altogether while the electric guitar, cello, and heartbeat (!) step to the fore. In a style of playing that generally eschews melody for mood and atmosphere, the textural variation of the string instruments is crucial (and underused); their unique timbres offer something fresh in terrain largely subsumed by dreamy piano motifs.
To be fair, Hutchings deserves credit for crafting an album of exquisite beauty and genuine emotion. Nonetheless, she might consider being more liberal with her color palette the next time around. As it stands right now, her music feels more like wallpaper than a painting.