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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1734

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Lenka: Shadows
by George Graham

(Skipalong / Fontana As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/17/2013)

It's often thought that interesting, creative music, and easy-going melodic pop are mutually exclusive. And indeed, one of the requirements of giving something pop appeal is a degree of musical simplicity. But over the years, there have been a number of groups and artists who have been able to bridge the gap, by making music that has more than superficial musical content and that can also find wider audiences. The Beatles during their latter period were the epitome of the ability to meld pop and art. I find myself drawn to such music not only because it can be fun to listen to, but sometimes in appreciation of the craft of balancing seeingly disparate demands.

This week have another such recording that represents that mix of arty pop. It's by the Australian-born singer-songwriter named Lenka, and it's her third CD called Shadows.

Thirty-five-year-old Lenka Kripac was born in Australia to a Czech father who is a musician and a schoolteacher mother. She grew up in the rural outback of New South Wales, before her family moved to Sydney. There she had the opportunity to study music and theater. One of her instructors at the Australian Theatre for Young People was Cate Blanchett. Her acting career got off to an early start. She starred an Australian TV drama called GP and either appeared on or starred in TV shows, landed couple of parts in Australian-made feature films, and did theater.

She got into music professionally as a member of an Australian electronic-pop band called Decoder Ring, appearing on a couple of their albums, before going off on her own, and moving to Los Angeles in 2007. Dropping her last name professionally she released an album as "Lenka" called The Show in 2008. She followed that up with a recording called Two in 2011.

These days she divides her time between Sydney, Australia and Brooklyn, New York. Her new third CD, Shadows has elements of her past work, including some electronic pop influence, but the music has interesting layers and incorporates wider influences than straight pop, sometimes taking on a theatrical aura. While there are some synthesizers to be heard, so too are actual string and brass instruments, as well as vibes. The sound can also run toward the atmospheric at times, While the lyrics are mostly love songs at their core, some not-so-subtle, it's all quite appealing, and the wealth of musical ideas balances the familiar territory for the lyrics. The CD was recorded in Australia, Canada, and in the US, with varying personnel.

The opening track epitomizes Shadows. It's called Nothing But Love and the lyrics are exactly about that. While it has potential as a melodic pop song for which Lenka's almost angelic voice is a nearly perfect fit, there are lots of interesting musical elements going on, including brass instruments providing a distinctive texture. <<>>

Another creative love song is called Faster With You. In this case the vibes are prominent and provide an intriguing texture. <<>>

The following piece Heart to the Party, with its string arrangements, recalls some 1960s-era pop. The lyrical message is straightforward, but the music shows a lot of creativity. <<>>

A great song for the middle of winter is After the Winter with a kind of happy-go-lucky message of optimism that after the cold of winter, the warmth of spring will surely come. <<>>

On her website, Lenka describes the songs on her CD as "adult lullabies." A good example of that is a track called No Harm Tonight. It's nicely done and could probably work as a lullaby for children as well. <<>>

On the other hand, the tune called Monsters evokes scary images, though the general lyrical message is one of reassurance. <<>>

Most of the songs on the album are generally positive in mood, but there is one sad song of parting. It's called Nothing and while its lyrics are a bit cliched, the track provides a good contrast to the upbeat mood of most of the rest of the album. <<>>

The CD closes with The Top of Memory Lane which evokes the sound of some of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper's era music. <<>>

As much as the devoted music fan may enjoy innovative or iconoclastic music, most of us also have a soft spot in our hearts for some good melodic pop. It's actually an art to make music like that and also keep it interesting. Australian singer-songwriter Lenka, on her new third solo album Shadows has done that with a collection of generally easy-going songs that are lyrically very much in the pop mode, but the recording has much to offer musically -- hummable melodies but also interesting arrangements and nice sonic touches. Lenka has the perfect voice for this kind of thing, and she is instantly appealing.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-plus. There is a lot of studio manipulation but it's generally tasteful. The dynamic range, as is typical for a pop-oriented recording, is not very wide, with a fair amount of volume compression squashing out the ability of the music to get softer or louder.

High quality intelligent pop is surprisingly rare. Goodness knows, there's lot of dumb repetitive pop, and on the other hand, the audiences for eclectic music tends to be limited. Lenka is one of those artists who can strike a nice balance.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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