Snowbird is a transatlantic duo. Stephanie Dosen, a singer songwriter from Wisconsin, provides vocals over tracks originating from piano sketches by Simon Raymonde. Dosen already responsible for a couple of solo albums has also toured as vocalist with Massive Attack and provided vocals for several songs on The Chemical Brothers‘ 2010 album Further. Raymonde who has run the Bella Union label since 1997 was previously a key member of dream-pop pioneers Cocteau Twins. While the duo’s sound is admirably fleshed out by an impressive indie alumni (Midlake, Lanterns on the Lake and even a couple of Radioheaders) it’s plainly the Cocteau connection that provides the most significant touchstone here.
Cocteau Twins, if you don’t know already, captivated the 80s indie world, starting out as goth-tinged ethereal Post Punk. Then, over a total of 9 albums and 18 years, they developed into lush multi-layered dream pop, managing as they went to influence (then transcend and ultimately outlive) the Shoegaze movement. With shoegaze now (bafflingly?) back in vogue and a Cocteau Twins reunion seeming unlikely, the timing of this debut by Snowbird is ideal. Natural reviewing instincts implore me to avoid direct comparison and to judge on merit alone, but that becomes very difficult, very quickly.
The terrain is familiar. As you might expect there is a lullaby guise to the proceedings. Raymonde and his famed associates conjure a lushness, with elegance and otherworldliness. The music never reaches syrupy, but it’s always… let’s say… nice. There are more details to the song structures than might have been expected and the use of production effects is always the right side of tasteful but after the initially impressive variety within an ethereal framework, things eventually settle into a liltingly-paced formula. As the record progresses, tracks begin to blend into one another. In this territory that can often be a good thing but, in the quest for a soothing wash of an album, there is a hurdle or two.
Liz Fraser, the icing on the cake of Cocteau Twins spell, was well known for her strikingly versatile, swooping soprano vocal. Equally celebrated though was her generally indecipherable lyrical style and it seems now that all those years of gobbledygook were a smart move. Listening to Moon, Dosen’s words become a distraction in the mix. Her child-of-the-forest schtick is undeniably pretty, but it’s soon tiresome to anyone not wearing a floral dress and bows in their hair. I’m ready to have the whole experience flow through me, like an autumn breeze through an enchanted forest, but the vocals (probably sketching just such a scene) ironically make it less possible.
There’s plenty to commend about this well rounded and considered debut. The occasional suggestions of Gallic folk are an unexpected and welcome addition. The carefully echoed vocals are an old trick and slightly overused, but nevertheless work perfectly. The fairytale escapism, if you’re into it, is flawless and Dosen has an admirable singing voice of her own. Sometimes though, following footsteps through the magic woods is harder than it seems. Jonathan Wallace