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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1635

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Brooke Fraser: Flags
by George Graham

(Wood & Bone Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/30/2011)

Among singer-songwriters it's sometimes difficult to find a balance between potentially wider pop appeal and the thoughtful, literate nature that distinguishes the traditional folkie. This week, we have a recording that does bridge that gap well, an album of interesting, often articulate songs with a musical setting that has the potential possibly to yield a hit or two. In fact she's an artist who has already had a couple of hit albums Down Under: Brooke Fraser, whose new release, here third, is called Flags.

Brooke Fraser grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, showing an interest in music at age 2, according to her mother, who encouraged young Brooke, keeping instruments around the house. She began piano lessons at age 7, and was encouraged to get into songwriting by a school music teacher gave an assignment to come up with an original Christmas song when Brooke was 12. Not long thereafter, she took a great liking to the songs of James Taylor, Carole King and Joni Mitchell, so she also took up the guitar. By the time she was 18, she was signed to Sony Records in New Zealand and moved to Auckland where she performed and came up with the songs that would make up her debut CD called What to Do with Daylight, released in 2003. It went to the top of the charts in her home country, and her reputation also spread to Australia, where she toured extensively.

Her next release, called Albertine was inspired by a young boy she met in Rwanda, where she visited in 2005, a decade after the massacre there, where scars were still not healed.

In the meantime, she had moved to Syndey, Australia and gotten married. But in 2010, she made trips to the US, staying in the mountains of North Carolina and in Northern California to do some writing. She explains that while her previous songs were mostly autobiographical or written in the first person, the new CD is written from the standpoint of various characters. She and her husband journeyed to Los Angeles to stay while the album took shape, working with various musicians based there. She produced the CD herself, defying those who were asking her whom she would get to produce her next recording. She created the musically interesting, but appealing arrangements that mark Flags. The musicians gathered on the recording are mainly session players, including guitarists David Levita and Michael Chaves, and keyboard man Ben West. Ms. Fraser also played guitars and keyboards. The rhythm section included bassist Curt Schneider and drummer Aaron Redfield. One of the interesting twists on Flags is the fairly frequent use of body percussion, or what is sometimes called hambone. The result is clever and imaginative both musically and lyrically. The songs do include some variations on the love song, but there is also an interesting song about a failing farm, a kind of drinking song, and a sort of 21st Century version of Joni Mitchell's Woodstock, which was inspired by Ms. Fraser's attending an alternative music festival.

The CD opens with Something in the Water, a catchy love song that combines a pop sensibility with clever lyrics, and an arrangement that includes some of that body percussion with hand clapping, foot stomping and the like. <<>>

One of the characters Ms. Brooke came up with for this CD is the namesake of the song Betty. <<>>

On the more musically laid-back side is Who Are We Fooling, a love song about two people who supposedly broke up but continue to be drawn together. It's a duet vocal with Matt Sales of the band Aqualung. <<>>

Her song about the Coachella music festival, which Ms. Fraser said inspired her writing for this record, is appropriately called Coachella. It has the same kind of enthusiasm for the event that Joni Mitchell had 40 plus years earlier for Woodstock, but obviously the context has changed. <<>>

One of the musical highlights of the CD is a track called Jack Kerouac, which is about being on the road like the famous beat-generation author. The tune has a delightful tropical feel. <<>>

Also inspired by the writings of an American author is Crows + Locusts, a story in the John Steinbeck mode about a farm family facing disastrous times. <<>>

In the other hand, Ms. Fraser creates a kind of pub song, Here's to You. It's not exactly a standard drinking song, but a nicely written celebratory toast to someone. <<>>

The CD ends with the title song, Flags a musical appeal for conciliation, in the face of injustice. <<>>

New Zealand native Brooke Fraser's new CD Flags is an appealing, and yet multi-layered recording that strikes that rare balance between the potential to reach pop audiences and good musical substance. She's a great singer, a creative composer -- both musically and lyrically -- and on this new third recording, an excellent producer/arranger. It's the first time she assumed that role, and she succeeds brilliantly. Having become a big star in her home country while still in her teens, she has definite potential among American audiences.

Our grade for audio quality is an A-minus. The instrumentation is generally well-recorded, and there are numerous interesting sonic touches, but the recording does have a kind of a very studio-oriented, processed sound. Dynamic range is squashed by typically overdone volume compression to artificially jack up the volume, but it's not as bad as some CDs.

Though independently released in the US, Brooke Fraser's Flags has the sound and packaging of a major label CD. It's an impressive piece of work from an artist from Down Under who should appeal well to discerning fans of both contemporary pop and singer-songwriters.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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