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Reviews

Lia Ices
Grown Unknown Michael Dix , April 6th, 2011 18:01

It isn't difficult to picture Brooklyn songstress Lia Ices as the next big female indie superstar. With the same striking theatrical presence as Florence Welch, and a knack for the kind of complex song structures that combine traditional folk, jazz, piano-pounding soul and Seventies rock with contemporary production techniques, Ices is pretty much your average blog-hound's wet dream; a Weird Science hybrid of Joanna Newsom, Glasser and Cat Power brought to life and releasing great music on one of the planet's coolest record labels. Sophomore album Grown Unknown, however, seems to suggest the artist herself is happier in the shadows than basking in the spotlight. It's a gentle, low-key record, more suited to smaller, intimate surroundings than the kind of concert halls favoured these days by some of her contemporaries. Down-tempo but never downbeat, it's quiet, but confidently so.

With a husky alto reminiscent of Feist or Regina Spektor, Ices' understated vocal style lends itself well to late-night listening, and Grown Unknown - her first offering for the ever-excellent Jagjaguwar label - is certainly music for the wee small hours. These are songs of love and loss, myths and magic, where dreams and nightmares collide. It is also a masterclass in restraint; the sparse instrumentation and exquisitely dry production from Rare Book Room's Nicolas Vernhes (who also recorded and released Ices' 2008 debut Necima) draw attention to the spaces between the sounds, and whereas other singers might grab the opportunity to indulge in histrionics, Ices instead opts to breathe life into these sketches with airy sighs and half-whispered vocals, wringing maximum emotion from her songs whilst barely even raising her voice.

Ices isn't the only focal point here, however, and Grown Unknown's arrangements are just as captivating as the vocals. Painting from a fairly limited palette, these songs expand and evolve, tracking the shifts in Ices' voice and often ending up sounding completely different by the time they've run their course. Sometimes these changes are subtle: 'Little Marriage' starts off with a droning organ and a brittle percussive loop of bells and finger-clicks, but gradually layers in some acoustic guitar and xylophone, and when fluttering strings and woodwinds bloom from frosty beginnings on pulsing closer 'New Myth' they do so with the graceful beauty of a flower blooming in the sunlight. On other occasions the turns are sharper, like 'After Is Always Before', where Ices voice is surrounded by little other than a hazy guitar shimmer until suddenly waltz-time drums, harpsichord and a choir of swooping multi-tracked Ices comes crashing in.

The continuing relationship between Ices and producer Vernhes is clearly a fruitful one. Having previously worked with the likes of Deerhunter, Black Dice and Animal Collective, Vernhes is adept at helping Ices realise her more avant-garde visions; the minimal handclap rhythm that drives the title track, for example, could almost be mistaken for a Timbaland beat. But the album's highlights are the moments informed by classic rock and pop; 'Love Is Won' combines Carole King piano-balladry with an opiated Fleetwood Mac vibe and adds some needling Crazy Horse guitar to spell-binding effect, but best of all is 'Daphne', a gentle finger-picked folk song coloured by baroque strings that swells into a Bon Iver-assisted, prog-psych epic recalling Dark Side-era Pink Floyd. Whether or not Grown Unknown propels Lia Ices to superstardom, it's a bewitching album, and a thing of rare beauty.

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