CD REVIEW: Sienna Dahlen- Ice Age Paradise

Sienna Dahlen- Ice Age Paradise
(Sienna Dahlen Music/ Bandcamp. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

This paradise isn’t warm and tropical, but cold. The award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter Sienna Dahlen grew up in the west of Canada, where her memories are of the beauty of the cold, and connection with nature. Dahlen sings and plays guitar and piano in this lusciously-arranged song collection (her sixth album) along with a fine band of eight Canadian musicians.

Several songs have coldness as a central theme. The languid major/minor guitar arpeggios of Drifting Daydream evoke images of the north; the voice is spacey with reverb, and far back in the mix. Bassist Andrew Downing has arranged all the songs. Here are subtle, overlapping lines of cello and violin that echo and harmonise with the voice:

‘’The days grow thin
The nights fold in

Great grey owl, Phantom of the north.

The horns build in intensity but not volume. Dahlen describes the song as being influenced by Radiohead, but my first thought when hearing her enigmatic swooping vocals was of Jeff Buckley. Cold is slower and sparser. Electric guitar harmonics and delicate cymbals drip and crackle like melting ice as the oboe picks up the melody. Thom Gill’s thoughtful guitar solo floats over bass and drums. It’s a bleak vision transmuted by the beauty of the music: ‘Cold like cold like I’ve never felt.’

Many of her lyrics could stand alone as poems with their potent images. Your Eyes describes a former partner’s cold eyes.

‘Stones formed the weight of your words, dear 
Stones, you were aiming my way, dear’ 

The groove is urgent, almost a tango. In Ice Age Paradise, about the death of a ‘fearless snowboarder’ as well as lost love, the voice’s warm vibrato recalls the tone of compatriot kd lang. The lyrics pick out details to earth the abstractions: ‘Carving a path through the snow…’ before melting into glassy wordless vocal lines, ‘Chanting mantras at half mast…’

Blind Spot could be an elliptical lyric about love or, as Dahlen puts it, ‘Life, ephemeral’

‘Headlights flash sealing the deal
You got away
You flew away’

The orchestral layers, in somnambulistic 3/4, echo the vocal melody between lines. Boat Afloat an Ocean has the excellent Kevin Breit guesting on guitar and banjo, bringing more of an Americana flavour, with vocal rather than orchestral harmonies. Just as the cold can be both negative and positive, the boat, as a metaphor for ‘seasick’ love, is both ‘sinking sunk’ and ‘drifting home…’

Invisible and Reappearing Dream are about inner states. The first is a memorable melody partly in 5/4. There’s a particularly arresting moment where the high violin reinforces the vocals

‘Untameable urgency
A long, long journey home…’

A languid trumpet and guitar duet expands into a rich orchestral section. Reappearing Dream summons

‘Summer sky floating above a
Paris carrousel …’

as voices whisper in the background over string harmonics, in echoes of Elizabeth Fraser’s eerie vocal style.

The album is dedicated to Dahlen’s late mother, and Si Je Pouvais is a ‘song of love’ for her; the simple French lyric builds in repeated phrases till the phrase ‘comment je l’aime’ fades into a superb, unhurried trumpet solo. Venezia, written by Dahlen’s father Laine Dahlen, and sung in a duet with him, characterises the city as a beautiful woman. It’s a deeply romantic melody, recalling classic Italian love songs: ‘Guide me to enchanted lands..’

The whole album has an enchanted feel; the songs are personal but not confessional, and the orchestration develops them perfectly. There’s unflinching clarity and also beauty in these songs of love and loss.

Sienna Dahlen – Voice, Acoustic Guitar, Piano
Andrew Downing – Double Bass and Arrangements
Nick Fraser – Drums
Thom Gill- Electric Guitar
Lina Allemano – Trumpet
Lief Mosbaugh –  Oboe, English Horn
Micajah Sturgess – French Horn
Jennifer Burford– Violin
Evan Lamberton – Cello
Kevin Breit – Acoustic Guitars and Banjo (Track 9)
Laine Dahlen – Background Voice (Track 6)

LINK: Podcast interview with Sienna Dahlen about Ice Age Paradise

A new version of Ice Age Paradise with jazz orchestra will receive its premiere on 3rd December at L’Astral in Montreal, directed by Christine Jensen, as part of a fundraising campaign for the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal

Categories: miscellaneous

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