Imagine if you took Macy Gray and Martina Topley-Bird, threw them in a blender, plugged that blender into a speaker, and jammed the puree button. This would give you an adequate approximation of Sarah Blasko’s voice: slightly grainy, slightly frail, slightly haunting, and usually a little detached. Understanding the voice of Sarah Blasko is crucial to understanding her album, The Overture and the Underscore. Not because her voice is particularly powerful or beautiful in a classical sense, but because many of the production and songwriting decisions on the album seem predicated on shielding her voice from criticism, often at the expense of honesty and emotional power.
Thematically speaking, the songs are typical female singer-songwriter fare. We are led on a journey through a sea of contemplative evaluations of relationships, sensitive treatments of past pain, and confident assertions of future strength. The lyrics are smartly written, the melodies, while not always immediate, are generally complex and rewarding, and the choice of instrumentation is diverse and clever. For the most part, the instruments and vocals mix together seamlessly, but each song ends leaving the listener unfulfilled. This is most obvious on “Always Worth It,” the best song on the album, and the best example of the power and limitations of Blasko’s music.
“Always Worth It” combines an adeptly restrained use of strings with a jangling guitar rhythm driven by firm pulsing drums. The music gradually builds to a soaring chorus which all but demands attention. Throughout the song, electronic accents hover in the background, occasionally poking forward in the mix, lending strength to the vocal at key points. On paper, this song sounds perfect, but it, like so many songs on this album, ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
The reason for this is simple. Popular music convention suggests that one should write music and arrange production such that it accentuates strengths, and downplays weakness. However, the best of music is great because, and not in spite, of its quirks. The Overture and the Underscore, with its complicated mixes of drum loops, acoustic guitars, ambient noises and soaring strings, offers a tour-de-force of technical expertise.
Unfortunately, all of this production has a rather unhappy marriage with Blasko’s deep lyrics and aloof singing. The production constantly urges the songs to fly, while the music and vocal occasionally seem more comfortable on the ground. People love aloof, detached singing because it reminds them of the ambiguity and ambivalence of human existence, and they love soaring choruses and melodies precisely when they don’t want to be reminded. The production refuses to allow the listener to deal adequately with the issues discussed in the songs. Sarah Blasko clearly has something to say, but it is unclear whether she wants anyone to hear it.
Going through the album, one craves for the song that doesn’t go for the cheap thrill, the song that invites the listener deeper. This song never comes. Whenever Blasko’s lyrics and thoughts reach their most engaging, and the vocal reaches its most vulnerable, drastic measures are taken to avoid showing any potential weakness. The end result is a bunch of tightly-crafted songs that are pleasant enough on the surface, and that seem to invite deeper listening, but the deeper the listen, the more one realizes that much of the music is only parlor tricks. Even the unlisted bonus track, perhaps the one chance for Blasko to strip down and demonstrate true depth, can’t resist swelling to an unnecessary high.
As much as the songs are aware of their strengths, so is the production aware of its weaknesses. Where Sarah Blasko’s voice doesn’t sell the songs, an adeptly constructed production flourish does. But the formula gets old long before the album ends. In art, restraint is often more powerful than boldness, and embracing flaws often more effective than painting them over. It is hard to know when to stop adding strokes, and Sarah Blasko certainly hasn’t mastered the process. Yet, despite its frustrating lack of confidence, The Overture and the Underscore shows enough promise to make it worth a listen and hope that in the future Blasko finds a more comfortable and emotionally real balance in her music.
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