The debut album by A Fine Frenzy, 'One Cell in the Sea', has over the past year or two been gathering an increasingly strong fan base for Alison Sudol and her band. It was an album of poetic, sometimes haunting songs; and the first single from that album, 'Almost Lover', propelled her to stardom, with huge success both in her native America and in continental Europe. For those who might have been expecting her new album to continue in the same style, 'Bomb in a Birdcage', may come as a surprise.
The album cover may contain a hint: gone is the perhaps slightly fragile and shy look of Sudol on 'One Cell in the Sea', and in comes a sassy, in-your-face image of the artist as a determined, daring woman. However, lest I am worrying fans of her debut album, there are some overlaps and similarities in the music. Alison Sudol the poet is still very much there, and the lyrics of the new tracks continue to use beautiful and memorable imagery and expressions. Also, there are some songs that pick up from her earlier style, perhaps in particular 'Happier', 'Bird of the Summer', 'The Beacon' and 'Swan Song'; the latter is an extraordinarily beautiful expression of loss and regret, and one of my favourite tracks. Perhaps the first single from the album, 'Blow Away', is something of a bridge between the old and the new A Fine Frenzy, with powerful melody but also a punchy beat. This song also shows off her strong vocal range, as she manages to deliver part rock anthem and part operatic aria in a song that unites these styles quite easily and very successfully.
And then there are other songs where Sudol makes use of various styles that have informed her music, including jazz, rock and even country. While there isn't a weak song on the album, maybe the two that made me sit up most when I first heard them were 'Electric Twist' and 'We Stood Up'; the first of these is an almost teasing song that starts slowly and builds up, with a punchy beat and a flirtatious theme; while the second is a rock-inspired rallying cry of defiance and determination, but which (as the final line reveals) is a plea for kindness.
Not many singers or bands risk completely new departures after a successful first album. 'Bomb in a Birdcage' is a pure delight because it refuses to allow A Fine Frenzy to be typecast, but at the same time does not refuse to give her fans some of what they have come to treasure. It is a hugely powerful album, supported by songwriting that is clever, astute, enticing, original and simply musical, and driven by a performance from Sudol and her band that is hugely impressive. The musical accompaniment is sophisticated, emphatic where it needs to be but also very subtle in some of the songs - listen to the flutes in 'Bird of the Summer', for example.
This is a must-buy, must-have album.