By Chris Cooper
Sia: Lady Croissant
To a degree, it seems like Zero 7 makes “electronic” music for people that normally wouldn’t really dig the style. Besides the brilliant mix of orchestral, traditional pop and soul elements evident in their work, it’s their skill in casting vocalists that bring exceptionally distinct flavors and interpretive skills to the material that borders on genius.
Among those unique singers is Australian crooner Sia Fuller, who was featured prominently on the group’s 2001 release Simple Things. The tracks that featured her, “Destiny” and “Distractions,” displayed a singer with a similar tonal quality to artists like Nelly Furtado and Dido, but endowed with a bluesy grit and chops that easily eclipse the two.
Sia’s solo album from 2006, Colour The Small One expounded on her neo-soul vibe with a lush collection of songs that possessed a few things many artists in this style tend to skimp on — depth, colorful imagery and imagination.
With Lady Croissant Furler serves up one new studio track and a gorgeous (if rather short) live set from NYC’s Bowery Ballroom. The new tune, “Pictures,” clangs with bouncing mid-tempo power-pop beneath a tale that makes infatuation sound remarkably similar to a severe allergic reaction.
It’s the live set that’s the highlight here, proof that Sia (and a crack band of musicians) can deliver these songs without the aid of studio magic and trickery. The arrangements keep only the parts that really make these songs tick, and nowhere in the set does anything sound empty or lacking — if anything, many of these tunes shine a bit more in this stripped down format. “Numb” readily demonstrates this, reveling in the power and dynamics that only a live band can bring to a song.
Sia does her best Chrissie Hynde on the Ray Davies penned “I Go To Sleep,” which features guitarist Gus Seyffert laying some sly Wes Montgomery styled octaves in the verses. “Breathe,” her recent hit (featured on the wildly popular Grey’s Anatomy) surges with drama and intensity, and hearing her wail on the extended outro forces me to ponder why anyone is willing to settle for glossy, half-hearted attempts at modern soul by artists like Joss Stone when there’s an album like this just waiting to be heard.
Lady Croissant needs no butter or jam at all; it’s quite tasty just as it is.
David Gray: Shine: The Best Of The Early Years
It’s easy to forget that for the most part David Gray is a guitar playing singer/songwriter in the truest sense. This is partially due to the success of 00’s White Ladder and the single “Babylon,” which had his guitar sharing much of its space with prominent drum machine and synth burbles, blips and clicks. It’s not that those are bad things at all; it just makes hearing Gray’s earlier “folk and roll” based work that much more interesting.
Take a tune like “Late Night Radio.” It’s big. It rocks. Gray’s sensitive guy thing is fully apparent on much of this collection (culled from his first three releases) but it’s mixed up in varying degrees of production and delivery, from the aforementioned bombast to the near Americana crunch of “A Century Ends” and “Faster, Sooner, Now” to the undeniably Irish waltz of “Debauchery.” But the element that’s most consistent is Gray’s singular gift as a lyricist — a quality that prompted Joan Baez to describe him as the best since Dylan. Higher praise would be quite hard to muster up, eh?
Shine’s pacing is unusual in that it ebbs and flows in such a way that it’s tough to put your finger on exactly what period of his career some of the songs come from. “The Light” feels like a close cousin of “Babylon,” but it’s from 94’s Flesh. Sparsely arranged and bare, “Holding To Nothing” has the feel of a much earlier composition, yet it appeared on the album just before White Ladder. Despite any unintentional anachronistic trickery, it’s only the very oldest material that reveals a “young” sounding David Gray, and even then it’s more the production that gives it away than his performance, and by the end of Shine it’s hard not to imagine that Gray must’ve sprung from the womb with his talents fully realized.
The joy of both these CD’s is the opportunity to hear two musicians in settings that shed new light on the sounds you may have assumed to know pretty well. The common assumptions might be that a “session” vocalist (Sia) may not be able to hang too convincingly in the live arena, or that we only get introduced to an artist (Gray) once they’ve recorded their “best” album for a major label. But in the case of these two, they had “it” the whole time. We just had to catch up to them.