Saddle Creek | Art in Manila | Reviews


Set the Woods on Fire

Author: Angela Zimmerman
08/15/2007 | | | Album Review
Orenda Fink sure does have a pretty voice. From the delicate terrain of dreamy, ethereal Azure Ray, Fink has projected her latest energies into a new band, Art in Manila, and doesn't stray too far from what she's comfortable with her crystal clear voice seems to promise us something evocative and consequential but doesn't really take us to that place.

The strength of the band's debut album, Set the Woods on Fire, lies in Fink's assertive vocal presence, and her vision is one almost dwarfed by melodic, reflective, lush arrangements. She seems pretty affected by life and wants to project her spiritual worldview into this project. The opening notes of the album on "Time Gets Us All" linger, gliding slowly from one into the next, and while it's a slow, weary start, she's a thinker and by god she's going to sing about it. But then, "it" fails to really deliver. The piano is exquisite and the harmonies suggest this tapestry of depth, but as Fink utters "Time Gets Us All" over and over, the verse doesn't go anywhere, or attempt to answer any questions, or even probe these musings. It lacks some lyrical development in general.

This slow, weeping song leads into the more up-tempo, though still dense "Our Addictions" haunting, though the vocals are vapid. "The Abomination" has a lot of guitar strumming and her wistful voice sings "When I was a girl I saw an accident / a man struck by an automobile / he flew through the atmosphere" and "I have no choice / But to dream of a dark country road / that leads me away from this great pain." Here's an example of a theme (pain) that, though recurring through the tracks, doesn't fully surface enough to give this album structure or meaning.

However, the music is intended to be introspective, and it does become progressively darker. It's in the fourth song, "I Thought I Was Free", that I realize she sounds like Sarah McLaughlin. I can't shake this comparison. The title track is my least favorite. "Set the Woods on Fire" leads you to believe that this album is going to take off somewhere or release tension somehow, but it really doesn't. If lyrics claim "set the woods on fire!" then something should happen in the song, not just the same repeating chorus over and over. But whatever. Still not a reason to write off the whole album.

Set the Woods on Fire continues along its trajectory of flowing harmonies anchored by this lady's fine, fine soprano. "Golden Dawn" is a bit overdramatic what with rising cymbals and lyrics like "he claims to be from God / but when was God this cold" and "son get on your knees / you'll be redeemed" but it has a lovely melody when it kicks in. And hey, I'm a sucker for theatrical lyrics. "Anything You Love" is pretty. She sings "anything you love can be saved, don't you know / so don't give up. I've come to show my soul / I'm a big black mouth / that will swallow you whole." There is more seasoning in the instrumentation behind her haunting, heartfelt voice, with some accordion flavoring the track.

The most surprising track on the album is their brooding acoustic cover of Les Savy Fav's "The Sweat Descends" that, unfortunately, makes me realize how much better the original is. This song begs to become loud and cathartic, but it's an ambitious effort on their part, and that intention is to be commended. But either way, I could do without it entirely. The looping vocal track grates on my nerves. "Spirit, Run" kicks off with a dark, industrial sound, spooky-like, and the dichotomy of her gorgeous voice makes this quite an interesting track. But again, it fails to go down into those dark recesses of captivation. "Precious Pearl' has an austere country backbone. Ooh, now that's a promising idea...

While Fink's plush sound is wholly easy on the ears, you know she has some darkness to her, and it'd be cool to see more of it unleashed lyrically as well as sonically.

Her voice is affecting, there's no doubt about it. But Art in Manila is missing something. Let us hope they can get into the heart of their sound, and coax it out from behind all these layers of arrangement. They have a vision but it's getting swallowed in murky overture. Rest assured if they can get back into their roots, into the depth of where this all came from, they could really have some presence. Maybe Fink will even stick with the country-tinged notion and give Jenny Lewis a run for her money.


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