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September 29, 2008
There's nothing quite like tearing the plastic wrapping from a new album, especially when you've been waiting to get your hands on it from the very moment you learned of its pending release. Being the music addicts we invariably are, either overtly or covertly, we've all been there. We've all experienced the rush. The quickening heartbeat, the bulging eyes. Once our gaze meets the cover of the album - sweaty hands bringing it ever closer to our face, taking in the artwork and track names as if sucking on a helium balloon - its on. It is a weird, fleeting high.

Such was my emotional state when I first cradled Emiliana Torrini's Me and Armini, the Rough Trade follow-up to 2005's UK-charting Fisherman's Woman that was released this month. I was ecstatic. How could I not be? I longed to recapture the emotional pitch exemplified by one of her previous singles, a hit called "To Be Free," from her 1999 album Love in the Time of Science. Though her popular reputation has since eclipsed it (notably by her performance of "Gollum's Song" during the closing credits of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), "To Be Free" is particularly dynamic, using a story-telling style of vocals to sweep the listener into brooding thought and through an emotional ebb and flow as only a true artist can. The track is entrancing as the sounds of gentle, trip-hoppy beats pulsate in the background, and a gingerly fingered flute whimsically plays in distant intervals, emitting an atmospheric jolt. The whammy of all choruses - "Shouldn't hurt me to be free/ It's what I really need/ To pull myself together" - finds the listener ripped from their own world, shipped off on sweltering tides of emotional disparity that rise and fall with the tribulations of love and isolation.



It was Torrini's voice that dazzled me most about "To Be Free." Torrini has a signature, though not necessarily one-of-a-kind voice; innocent in nature, modest and nurturing, but extravagant, as if it were an opulent gem nestled in a pile of rusty cans. Her voice is also showcased in another favorite, "Sunny Road," from Fisherman's Woman, which represents the true essence of her musical songwriting style as it leads the listener down a magical, imaginative road few others are capable of traveling. Torrini's quiet and subdued voice takes us by the hand and guides us through visions of sunlight, of sparkling streams and cozy cottages nestled in the hills of her native Iceland. Folk-styled guitar playing cruises in a natural and seamless formation of melodies, the soft plucking of velvety strings mixed with harmonious chords and reels of pleasant tones. Torrini's sweetest elements combine in an eloquent balance, one where true harmony is as perfectly and effortlessly achieved as in the quiet gliding of a dream sequence. With such a powerful and captivating aural history, one can certainly understand why the release of Me and Armini would be so highly anticipated.



Almost instantly Me and Armini proves its potency; with the first song, "Fireheads," a sleeper wave of bass and guitar builds as Torrini's familiar voice sing/speaks with her characteristic intimacy, the tones sounding out in the always candid, sincere and catchily-phrased style she's so adept at. The thing about a characteristic delivery, however, is that over time (Torrini's first album, the Iceland-only Spoon, was released way back in 1994) it can get tangled in suspicions of creative burnout. I mention this because after a little while of listening, the way her vocals are sung can become scarily familiar to fans of Jack Johnson, who's offbeat yet assuring mannerisms American listeners are far more acquainted with. The resemblance hits home with her use of drawn-out pauses and elongated, one-word emphases. Still, Torrini's voice wins approval through the sheer overwhelming cohesion of it with the other elements on the album, a cohesion that is even more apparent when songs reveal themselves as more generic country- or alternative-rock instrumentations that veer toward the genre of easy listening. Which isn't altogether bad, just…different.

Following the opener, Me and Armini's title track is a song caked with reggae overtones, a stark drum-and-bass tempo creating the consistent and repetitive background traditional to most Caribbean-tinged songs. Early on Torrini even assumes a twinge of an accent to her voice, although it indecisively bleeds out and finalizes in a stronger set of blues tones, tweaked with an old-school swing style. With so many disparate flavors the song certainly feels experimental, and the adventurousness could be owed at least in part to Me and Armini's development - the album's producer, Dan Casey, has said that the record was written in just two and a half weeks. "We wanted it to sound like what would happen if you left a couple of kids in a studio with all the guitars, microphones and instruments in the studio plugged in and ready to record. We tried not to demo the songs at all, just doing things in one take to try and preserve the immediacy, and just generally have fun," Casey said in reference to the hurried process. That's one way to dispel suspicions of creative burnout. While such an approach can lend itself to a distinct burst of creativity and in turn an interesting album, in Torrini's case it might have been wise if more time were devoted to marrying concepts and melodies in a more subtle manner. Ideas do repeat themselves across the breadth of Me and Armini, but the sequence pitches so sharply from folky, acoustic balladry to spliff-rolling reggae that an organic thread is hard to draw through the entire work.



Though Torrini's delivery, on some tracks, might remind a few bargain shoppers of languid adult-contemporary surf noodling, the atmospheric tones of her voice will likely draw stronger (and more accurate) comparisons to Canadian chanteuse Neko Case. The eloquent and rich timbre of Torrini's vocals resonate with a similarly smoky power as that of the New Pornographers collaborator and, especially when laid atop the gentle and slightly droning guitar of a track like "Birds," convey the same languid, backcountry road house beauty. Of course on Me and Armini those dreamy trailer bride musings are butted up against the island flavor of "Heard It All Before," a track that disperses the aura of what came before and lands Torrini squarely in Björkian territory. A few songs later "Jungle Drums" unexpectedly blends the mannerisms of those two tracks into a weirdly successful cut.

While Me and Armini doesn't falter, at best it only coasts along on the strength of Torrini's trump card; as has been the case over the course of her career, the one true and solid pleasure point comes from the ghostly and beautiful sounds of the Icelandic singer's vocals. Torrini's voice pretty much serves as the main course while everything else, experimental or not, is resigned to the atmosphere of dinnertime clatter, complete with bemusing if somewhat played-out guitar hooks and the addition of conversational pieces of textured sound waves. Although the songs do, in their weird way, relate to each other, the album is still without a palpable cohesion and as such is not the overwhelming tour de force many expected from Torrini in 2008. But, that said, as it rolls through its dozen tracks and reaches the end, three-quarters of an hour later, with the dreamy and layered serenade of "Bleeder," Me and Armini is still satisfying. The album's musical instrumentation is soothing and tranquil enough to keep us all idle yet occupied… and idly waiting for Emiliana Torrini's next move.

[Photos by Jon Bergman]

SEE ALSO: www.emilianatorrini.com
SEE ALSO: www.roughtrade.com

--
Stephanie Flood
No biographical information is currently available.

See other articles by Stephanie Flood.

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