by Paul Ashby
Sometimes I’m vexed by the strangest things.
Like this: my unforgivable inattention to the initial release of remarkable albums. Unaccustomed, as I am, to Being Late To The Musical Party– well…I gotta admit it’s happened before. Maybe once. Okay, twice.
Examples. You want an example? Heather Woods Broderick’s From The Ground was issued in 2009 while, apparently, I was busy with other matters; I didn’t notice until 2013. Shame.
I’ve happened upon another release that serves as both a reminder and a warning that I really do need to begin paying attention.
Sara Lov self-released her third solo album, Some Kind Of Champion, in summer 2015. I discovered this after reading an interview with Dustin O’Halloran late last year. Dustin collaborated with Sara for two songs on Champion, and he’s contributed keyboards to all Sara’s albums, and collaborated with her on their Dévics project from 1996 through 2006. When Dustin plays on something, I tend to buy it. So I ordered the LP directly from Sara’s site, and bought the 24/44 download.
I sat down immediately and listened to it.
Good thing I was sitting down. Ever try kicking yourself while standing? I don’t recommend it. And here I am, seven or eight months later, a hundred or three listens later, still with the kicking — and still hearing new things to love. Whether the listener’s a masochist or not, Some Kind Of Champion is just one of those albums that keeps on giving.
Sara Lov’s previous releases are all high-quality works, each showing a determined and impressive progression in songwriting, arrangement, and production. The leap with Some Kind Of Champion, however, is relatively dizzying. Each song-story is a fully realized time capsule.
So. How can so well-crafted an album be made to sound this effortless?
“Sunmore”‘s breezy (yet unsettled) perfection exemplifies the Lov dichotomy — bitter songwriting pills coated in some of the sweetest instrumentation imaginable. The triphoppy beatplay and beguiling melody belies lyrics bathed in doubt and inadequacy: an airplay-ready gem, but for an f-word that is as well-placed as it is dashed off. Sara, that imp, has second-guessed herself — and outsmarted us. Not for the last time.
“Sorrow Into Stone” might be one of the more insidious tracks here. I mean that in the best possible way, of course. The arrangement is sublime, with arpeggiated flourishes and left-channel atmospherics adding some subtly flavored intangibility to the mix. This deceptively accessible toe-tapper is again undermined, this time with dark lyrics double-edged with desire.
“One In The Morning” is a resigned and introspective journey into late-night self-flagellation, set apart by the title’s ambiguous wit — and another gorgeous melody. The chorused-flutes keyboard (a Mellotron/Chamberlin sample?) progression recalls the textures of “Strawberry Fields” and the proto-psych vibe perfectly befits the tune’s sleep-deprived aura.
my heart is blacker than blue
and i’m still following you
i loved your beautiful face
not the one that hurt me
there were many
one in the morning
one for the daytime
one in the evening
another at night
i can’t hush the wind
i can’t calm the sea
and i can’t force the ones who don’t to love me
i go where i’m wanted
and i know when to leave
i see the signs and i am on it
and in the morning right where i should be
i went right out of my mind
and i did things you don’t need to know about
maybe you helped me
maybe you scared me
i’m not afraid of
I’m not really sure what to say about “Rain Up,” co-written by Dustin O’Halloran. One of the albums high points, it’s ethereal and transporting and temperate all at once. To paraphrase Herman Hesse, water imagery was by no means the most foolish thing ever invented. All I can think of is a more earthbound Julee Cruise, Lov’s vocals a vibrato-less coo with the ideal proportions of reverb and sadness. “Willow Of The Morning” has a similar touch of Badalamenti-esque wonder. Perhaps subsequent pressings could benefit from a sticker stating “Too Good for Twin Peaks – The Return!”
The showstopper here (admittedly, among a plethora of showstoppers) is “Trains”. It’s another O’Halloran collaboration, a painful, potent portrait of willful self-sabotage. In the middle section, Lov belts a repeated series of intense, held notes, her voice catching at just the right moment to wring the last bit of emotion out of the break — bringing it all home and setting things up for a full-on Fiona Apple-caliber orchestral climax that’d make Jon Brion blush. Damn.
How’s the recording? Excellent. The LP, in particular, is one of the best-mastered and best-pressed bits of independent-label vinyl I’ve heard in years. There’s enveloping warmth to the low end, minus any boom, and the overall tonal balance befits the well-crafted production. The 24/44 download comes close, and the CD is better than most, but this is something that definitely needs to be appreciated on vinyl. Play this on CD in your car or show the LP off for friends on your fancy-pants system; either way it sounds wonderful.
I’m still trying to figure out why this album is so remarkable. Sara nails every note and every word, her pitch, phrasing and wordplay enhancing each memory and mood. Perhaps the true beauty of Some Kind Of Champion is its economy. Nothing is wasted, lyrically or musically, and everything is optimized, without sounding over(t)ly wrought, or fussed-over. This combination of high-wire songwriting catharsis and meticulously complementary arrangements cannot have come easily — at least not as easily as it sounds — yet it’s the most painfully natural and lovely thing I’ve heard in ages. I can only hope that Sara has something left for her next release — this album sets the bar exceedingly high.
You can bet I’ll be paying attention next time.