Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jo Hamilton - Gown


Where did that come from? The question could refer to the fact that I am reviewing this album. It’s not my usual fare by any means. Jo Hamilton sings in a breathy purr that can rise to a full voice belting vocal within the same song. She has a warm quality, and her voice is a great pop instrument. She could change the production and arrangements on some these songs ever so slightly, and have massive hits. But here, she preserves her individuality, and I value that.

“Where did that come from?” might be about the arrangements here. At first listen, most of the songs here seem fairly straightforward. Yes, there are dynamic shifts, beautifully executed, but the songs seem fairly consistent. But, listen closer, and you will notice instruments and sounds making their appearance in a song when least expected.

Finally, “Where did that come from?” might be about the album as a whole. I can hear the influence of Kate Bush in the first few songs. But then, there is a lovely ballad, Paradise, with a samba flavor to it. There is an almost R & B tune, but for the double tracked sax and clarinet part that almost sounds like avant-garde jazz. And towards the end, there is even a waltz. Amazingly, the album does not sound at all like an I-pod Shuffle gone mad. Hamilton ranges through a wide variety of musical styles, and she makes it all hang together and make sense.

Musically, the first song, Exist (Beyond My Wildest Dreams), is the wildest. I probably wouldn’t have opened the album with it myself. Exist opens quietly, but soon swells into a fine dance groove, but then it almost completely falls apart. You almost have to imagine the beat until it reappears briefly later. And then it almost falls apart again, and reforms. This one makes the listener work, and it’s worth it, but, as the lead track, it sets up the idea that the whole album is going to be like this. In fact, everything else on the album is far more accessible.

Pick Me Up follows, and is a much better example of how the album works. This one sets up a groove and stays with it. There is a backing vocal part which seems to pull the rhythm off, but actually only strengthens it. And Hamilton’s lead vocal purrs on the verses and soars on the chorus.

Next is There It Is. This is a beautiful ballad, featuring acoustic guitar and stand-up bass, and again Hamilton shines on vocals. This is the first time on the album where she shows what she can do with a pure ballad.

I’m not going to go through the album song by song. This is enough to give you the idea. There are more grooves to be found. Hamilton also continues to shine on the ballads. And there are a few places where grooves and balladry are found in the same song. It all works. The textures vary throughout the album, making this a very satisfying listening experience.

For me, most of the lyrics do not stand out as much. Many of them strike me as sort of lyrical fortune cookies; they could be love songs or something else, but they are general enough to apply to any listener. The exceptions to this are all the more noticeable. In Paradise, and especially in Mekong Song, Hamilton evokes a very specific sense of place. In Mekong Song, I felt like I was on that boat on the river, listening to the gentle lapping of the water. I also like the way Hamilton captures the excitement of the beginning of spring in Winter is Over.

To conclude, Gown is a debut album by an artist who shows that she will be well worth keeping an ear out for. I will be very disappointed if Jo Hamilton decides to become a generic pop diva. But, if she continues to find her own voice and her own way, I look forward to the results.

Jo Hamilton: Pick Me Up

Jo Hamilton: Mekong Song