Album Review: Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk

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On the dustiest shelf of the tallest bookcase in the gloomiest antechamber of the Youtube library, there is a video that pinpoints exactly what Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk are in a way no review ever could.

The video captures a moment in the band’s 2012 Winnipeg Fringe Festival performance where a horde of small children swarm the stage to snatch up all manner of percussion instruments (or anything that can be smacked together with gusto) that have been left out for them, before running amok. The cameraman puts in a sterling effort of trying zoom beyond the rioting sproglets to the band playing away in the background, but it’s all impossibly quaint and cute and wholesome and couldn’t be a better representation of both band and album.

Released last week, Over Land and Sea, is an eleven-song study in carefully crafted quaint folk-whimsy that takes a whole fridge-full of musical influences and blends them together to rustle up something quite unique. To continue with the horribly ham-fisted culinary metaphor, first bite suggested a drop of Lisa Hannigan, two tablespoons of Feist and (as I’m sure the band are fed up of hearing) a light drizzling of namesake Aimee Mann.

The lyrical content threads the album neatly together, musing on existential laments and ruminating over days and people gone by, and it is beautifully framed throughout by Mann’s voice. Musically, the stand out track is “I Lost Myself,” and it has just the right dose of muscle, drawn from the Mumford and Sons/Lumineers school of musical thought (there’s a textbook drop at about 1:09), without drifting to close to derivation due to a generous dose of ukulele, flute, glockenspiel and, of all things, whistle solos.

Other highlights include the catchy snare shuffled beat of title track “Over Land and Sea” and the mournful ballad of closer “Like the Mist,” the latter deploying a dreamlike waltz rhythm and the hyper-reverbed guitars of Parachutes-era Coldplay to great effect. And talking of dreamlike waltz rhythms: rarely do you find a non-trad folk album venturing beyond the comforting restraints of straightforward 4/4. Here, more than half the songs are in either 3/4 or 6/8, with parts of “Of Life and Death” written in something so fiendishly tricky my brain starts to dribble out my ears when I try and hold it in my head. This may mean little to the non-musical, but I thought it was a nice touch, and one that went some way to offset my only real criticism of the album.

Which is: aside from the time signature skulduggery, I found that the musical arrangement erred on the side of staidness. Live, the sheer manic energy of the band lifts the whole performance (witness the drummer in the aforementioned video beating merry hell out of a standalone tom-tom and the charming folk-headbanging that ensues) but something of this is lost in simple instrumentation on the recording. It does seem like a conscious decision to pare things back, but I couldn’t help feeling the musicians were holding too much back.

There’s an apt lyric in “Over Land and Sea” stating ‘after all is said and done, there’s nothing new under the sun.’ Much has been written about the homogenisation of music in the 21st century – “it all sounds the same” etc – and it is an accusation levelled at folk music more than many other genres. As a fan, I like it when folk music pushes back, and I just felt Over Land and Sea restrained itself just a tiny bit too much. That said, I am a nit-picking musical anorak, so you should categorically not take my word for it.

Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk’s Over Land and Sea is a deft and expertly crafted folk album detailing the more gentle and whimsical aspects of life and definitely benefits from repeated listening. The band are touring throughout the spring in Canada and the Northern USA.

Album Rating: ★★★☆☆

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