Sunday, November 1, 2009

You Are the One I Pick - Felix

You Are the One I Pick

Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 85%

Few independent labels have nurtured and challenged their listeners with the careful balance that Kranky has over the years, and fewer have been repaid with such unabashed loyalty. The leading cause of such indie-fan devotion is probably the most apparent; that Kranky specializes in delivering records of a certain mystique, an impenetrable yet sonic aura that captures the imagination of our daydream generation. If the imprint’s refined ear for quality were ever confused by listeners as predictability, however, some jaws best get prepared to drop. Barely two weeks after releasing acclaimed albums by Atlas Sound and White Rainbow, Kranky has blindsided followers with You Are the One I Pick, a record that finds Lucinda Chua and Chris Summerlin (AKA Felix) intertwining curious storytelling with lush, elegant arrangements.

Initially, the contrast between notable Kranky artists and Felix land this release in coffee-house chanteuse territory, her quirky vocal delivery and improvisational piano work a distant but relatable cousin to the syrupy pop people usually caffeinate over. If you must, blame Chua’s familiar voice, which caresses words with the innocence of Bjork and announces itself a few cigarettes shy of Chan Marshall, because by the time first track ‘Death To Everyone But Us’ is finished, all those first-impressions will seem hopelessly off-target. What Felix have accomplished with You Are the One I Pick is nothing short of sensational; by stripping the female-armed-with-piano sound of its sad stereotypes and adult-contemporary leanings, Chua (known for touring with Stars of the Lid) and Summerlin (of the rock band Lords) reinvigorate been-there dynamics with a freshness and originality that radio doesn’t deserve. In the process, Kranky has, at least in part, re-written their playbook.

Distinguishing this record from lazy categorization (see above: “coffee-house chanteuse”) is how the instrumentation and Chua’s vocals interact. Despite her memorable idiosyncrasies, whether chanting stream-of-conscious insistences on ‘Death To Everyone But Us’ or collecting careful details on ‘Bernard St.’, Chua, at no point, feels like the sole member of Felix. Backing her expertly honed sensibilities on piano and cello with healthy doses of Kranky aura is Summerlin, who lays idyllic guitar upon some of You Are the One I Pick’s meatier cuts (‘Back In Style’ and the title track, in particular). Bound together, Felix compliment their songwriting with delicate use of strings and tasteful yet infrequent percussion. A sweltering set of strings stretch amid ‘I Wish I Was a Pony’’s fluttering piano-line and bleed into ambient washes on standout track ‘What I Learned From TV’, while sparse drum-taps provide the appropriate time signature in ‘Waltzing For Weasels’. Thanks to the fine disconnect between Chua’s verbal storytelling and the lavish moods of orchestration, You Are the One I Pick’s most captivating moments are those in which Chua and Summerlin seem oblivious to each other’s trajectory and yet their efforts riff successfully anyhow. Besides allowing the listener to choose how they wish to hear the record (focusing on its orchestration or lyrics at their discretion), Felix’s disconnect births a spontaneity that provides extra potency to these songs.

Perhaps it’s because I mentioned Chan Marshall earlier but I think it’s worth noting that You Are the One I Pick contains the same fresh, spacious songwriting that marked Cat Power’s You Are Free… only here, its melancholy and eccentricities are more vibrant. And considering how studied and breathtaking this full-length debut is, it’s difficult to ignore that had Cat Power released it, You Are the One I Pick would land prominently on most every year-end list come December. An irresistibly pointless statement to throw out, I know, but here’s hoping Felix receive the attention and credit they truly deserve. Harbouring the Kranky aura in its warmest glow yet, Felix's full-length debut is too attractive and meaningful to remain under the radar.

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