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Dark Eyes

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Album Review

Ambitious does not always mean big or noisy, as Olivia Fetherstonhaugh amply demonstrates on her first album as Fanshaw. Fetherstonhaugh has previously recorded as a member of the Choir Practice, a choral group made up of members from Vancouver's gifted (and sizable) indie rock community, but having shown what she can do within a large group, Dark Eyes finds her working on a more intimate scale, and it reveals Fanshaw as a very impressive talent. Dominated by Fetherstonhaugh's strong, dramatic, but breathy voice and spectral electric guitar figures, the nine songs on Dark Eyes are built around layers of vocals supported by spare, evocative arrangements, sometimes with just one or two other instruments on hand to carry her melodies. But Fetherstonhaugh can more than handle the weight of her songs by herself, and fine songs they are — her lyrics are smart and darkly atmospheric, made all the more powerful with her artful use of dynamics, and though the melodies are simple, they're beautifully crafted and soar with impressive height on the strength of her vocals. Dark Eyes is an album whose quiet surfaces are deceptive; this music often seems calm on first glance, but there's a remarkable amount of energy and drama lurking below the surface, and on "Strong Hips," "Vegas," and "O Sailor," Fanshaw paints a powerful widescreen image with just a few boldly applied strokes of her musical brush. The compact scale of the production and arrangements on Dark Eyes at once draws in the listener and fills up the room despite the clean surfaces; Fanshaw has built a giant of an album out of little details, and it's one of the most audacious debuts of 2010.

Customer Reviews

Well reviewed by Globe and Mail

Sounds like a great album -- I've put it on my wishlist for payday ...
"Robert Everett-Green
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published on Monday, Feb. 08, 2010 9:36PM EST
Last updated on Monday, Feb. 08, 2010 9:48PM EST
Dark Eyes, Fanshaw, Mint Records

Near the middle of her terrific solo debut, one of Olivia Fetherstonaugh's male characters accuses her lonely protagonist of trying to find love through an imaginary friend. “Are you up to the task?” the woman replies, and he says, “Sure,” because he's just a boy she saw in a dream, sketched on paper, and may have glimpsed in someone's face.

This is an album of love songs for ghosts – the shadowy figures we project onto people we want to love, and the ones they see in us. It's also a starkly realistic account of the gaps between what we want and what we can get.

In O Sailor, Fetherstonaugh (a member of Vancouver's the Choir Practice who writes and records as fanshaw) appeals to a man in an old photograph to lend his arm to a fantasy that morphs from a sauntering waltz to a robust martial strut. Nobody opens like another reverie, with a glimmer of guitars and murmuring high voices, but what those voices end up singing is like cold water thrown on the soul: “I don't think you're any good/ I've just got no one to love.”

On this album, even when “real love” isn't just a dream, it can put you in a place where you feel more alone, not less. “You pull me apart and uncover the song,” Fetherstonaugh sings in Strong Hips, and in most pop songs that would be the cue for a chorus full of rapt devotion. But not here. “I don't touch the way you feel it,” she insists in the refrain, pointing to what can get lost in translation even in an intimate act. A few songs later, she imagines escaping alone into the wild, where “there's nothing to be understood.”

Her light, opaque soprano animates these short sung tales without sinking into them, which may be appropriate, given the way they measure distances between the strangers we call “each other.” Diana swarms you with a pulsing chorus of wordless vocals, emphasizing the instrumental neutrality of Fetherstonaugh's voice. Her quiet strummed guitar, electric and undistorted, sometimes hooks up with a bass, mellotron or pedal steel, less often with drums. There's not an extraneous sound on the whole record.

Some of these tuneful and subtly invasive songs feed on other people's stories: Rebecca is obviously a riff on Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel by that name. Like the women she sings about, Fetherstonaugh exposes her inner reality while keeping us guessing as to how much of these characters matches the “real” her.

Fanshaw plays The Biltmore in Vancouver on March 6."

Dr. Maria

This album is beautiful and haunting. Her voice is clear and precise and the tunes unusual enough to set her apart from many other current artists. Having seen them live as well, the CD does justice to her talent.

Dark Eyes, Fanshaw
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