Reviews

Set the Woods on Fire

Author: Liz Colville
08/09/2007 | Pitchforkmedia.com | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
After extensive touring in eye-opening countries like India and Haiti, Azure Ray's Orenda Fink admitted to a more world-weary approach to songwriting for her solo album, 2005's Invisible Ones, and her new outfit, Art in Manila, a six-piece Omaha-based group on Saddle Creek. Slightly meatier than her work for Azure Ray, Set the Woods on Fire still retains an acoustic-based, cotton-puff delicacy, with a country tinge to the ballads and the pleasant, sultry effect of Fink's voice. But the content itself, both lyrically and melodically, ranges from catchy to drab to vaguely revelatory to overly earnest. To create atmosphere is one thing, but too often it's foggy and merely suggestive.

The album's title track boasts hefty guitar hooks and a strong, supportive percussion section, but the kick-drum heartbeat at the start gives way to a crash of cymbals and a dull chorus-- a recurring climax that tries too hard to slam its meaning home ("Set the woods on fire," repeat). Similarly, opener "Time Gets Us All" is monotonous in message and melody, the lazy, pulsating piano begging the question, Yes, time gets us all, so what? More successful is "Our Addictions", which adds electric guitar and trickling piano to soaring back-up vocals and a generally softer approach to singing, which crops up occasionally elsewhere. But as is the case with many of these songs, they start strong and energetic but topple at the chorus. Verse and bridge conspire to build us up, but the chorus's riffs, particularly on "Addictions", are underdeveloped and rote.

Balladic waltz "Anything You Love" has the haunting, smoky room quality of the other tracks, but drops much of the electricity for what's essentially a vocal-driven performance-- shakers, acoustic guitar, slide, and a bit of accordion never steal the show or adding any distracting weight to the mix. Fink's strength is in the higher ranges, where her voice is at its most porous yet most affecting, conducting the melody for the other instruments to simply sink into. Creepy harmonies in fourths and a wash of electric guitar on "Spirit, Run" attempts to add a dank, droning Neko Case-like element only hinted at on the other tracks, but there is a cloying passion to the vocals here that is better used on the mournful, pared-down "Precious Pearl", which-- with its climbing, wandering vocals-- shows how a swooning musical understatement can work. To hear Fink's voice alone with shy, tinselly percussion in the shadows is to see the fog of this album lift, if only momentarily.