Ask The Night
Author: Stephen M. Deusner
11/18/2009 | Pitchfork.com | www.pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/13702-ask-the-night/
Ask the Night is Orenda Fink's second album of 2009, the first being O+S, a one-off collaboration with the Scalpelist (aka Cedric LeMoyne of Remy Zero) via the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha. That album took her outside of her comfort zone, setting her vocals in ever more intricate soundscapes and tempering its shortcomings with a see-what-sticks experimental approach. Ask the Night was recorded in Omaha and Athens, Georgia-- two of Fink's old haunts-- and written partly with fellow Alabaman Chris Lawson, a Birmingham poet and artist who designed the album cover.
It ought to be more engaging and comfortable than O+S, but Ask the Night displays little of the compelling weirdness of her previous material. Losing the full-band sound of her 2005 solo debut, Invisible Ones, Fink adopts a more austere and rustic approach, recording a batch of coffeehouse tunes with a parallax relationship to genre: Her history and label suggest staunch indie folk (think any of the female Broken Social Scene offshoots). Considered from a slightly different angle, however, Fink sounds like she could open for more mainstream artists like Norah Jones or Vienna Teng.
"High Ground" is an exception and the most obvious keeper, with its spectral mandolin, ragged backing vocals from Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, and a chorus as incisive as it is evocative. "There's a rain comin' down to the valley below, and I know just how they feel," Fink sings plaintively, before adding the clincher, "'cause when the water rises, they start to look for high ground, just like me when you come around." It's the album's best moment, a hint at what it could have been, but nothing else on Ask the Night even begins to approach the stark candor of that unraveling metaphor. Instead, she's content to ask vaguely rhetorical questions about the night ("Why is the night sad?") or to counsel you to ask such questions ("Ask the night what it stole from you, and can it be returned?"). Such a fixation comes across not as a powerful existential equation, but as a frustrating obliqueness that gives the album a slipshod quality, as if these songs are rough-draft sketches instead of finished paintings.
In fact, at times she comes across as pandering, delivering pallid bromides like "The Garden" with its disingenuous there-there: "If you lose your home, and you lose all you've worked for, if you lose it all, it's all right." That's all the wisdom she's got for us, and her perkily staccato phrasing on that last syllable suggests a passive-aggressive spirituality that's useless in the face of real tragedy. Such moments might be more forgivable if they were more ignorable, but Fink writes spartan arrangements meant to highlight her vocals. That de-emphasis doesn't benefit the music, which is too tastefully low-key even on the lazy strut of "Alabama" and the modified waltz of "Sister". Fink has a lovely voice, clear and direct and expressive especially in its lower register, but her lyrical cadences don't always match up to their melodic lines, resulting in some awkward phrasings on "Why Is the Night Sad" and "The Garden". This is an album that suffers in the context of Fink's career. She is an obviously talented artist working well below the standards she's set for herself as both one half of Azure Ray and a solo artist, and if that makes for a disappointing album... well, it's not all right at all.
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