wears the trousers magazine

art of time ensemble featuring sarah slean: black flowers (2009)
June 25, 2009, 9:31 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , , ,


Art Of Time Ensemble featuring Sarah Slean
Black Flowers •••

A collaboration between Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean and classical musicians collectively known as the Art Of Time Ensemble, the concept behind Black Flowers has its origins in a two-night live residency held in May 2007 at Toronto’s Enwave Theatre. Appropriating songs from the contemporary Canadian songbook, Slean and her crew went about fashioning completely new versions of songs by her compatriots. Taking in such diverse artists as Feist, Leonard Cohen, Ron Sexsmith and Lynn Miles, Slean and Art Of Time Ensemble director Andrew Burashko have managed to craft a rather coherent studio set, utilising Slean’s main instrument, the piano, and weaving it around inspired classical arrangements by her classical cohorts. Not particularly well known outside Canada, Slean’s debut Blue Parade was released independently in 1998, and she has since put out another three albums, perhaps the most far-reaching of which was last year’s The Baroness. Although she is distinctly her own person with a unique voice, to help contextualise her musically think fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, and also, indirectly, singers kd lang and Madeleine Peyroux, whose jazz-infused sound this album adopts.

Black Flowers is bookended by two Leonard Cohen songs, ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ from his 1967 debut Songs Of Leonard Cohen, and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ from 1971’s Songs Of Love & Hate, and they are arguably the strongest of the nine tracks on offer. The former adds strings and double bass to Slean’s piano, adding a warm depth of sound that the sparser original does not have, and Slean really has a chance to show off her vocals. However, and this is a pervasive problem on the album, some instrumentalists (the saxophone here, and on other songs the offender is a soprano clarinettist) are a somewhat dated and unwelcome addition to the arrangements, perhaps giving them an undeservedly naff quality. ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ keeps things simple and close to Cohen’s arrangement of sparse guitar, but also adds flourishes of piano and strings. Although it lacks the desperation of Cohen’s version (the song is about a nervous breakdown), Slean brings a compelling drama to proceedings. Again, that soprano clarinet is back, but can’t quite ruin things.

Other highlights on the album include the title track, originally by folk singer Lynn Miles. Against a backdrop of mournful strings and acoustic guitar, Slean expertly tells this sad, pastoral story of a love lost forever. ‘I’ll Never Tear You Apart’s pizzicato piano chords, double bass and interweaving strings completely reinvigorate Martin Tielli’s original, while ‘Dandelion Wine’ is all string quartet and guitar and only enhances the brilliance of Ron Sexsmith’s expert songwriting. John Southworth’s ‘Eyes Are The Flowers’ again uses only the sparsest of arrangements, first with string quartet then delicate piano. Another highlight comes with Feist’s ‘Monarch’, the title track from her little known pre-fame debut, which is marvellously given a sonic overhaul with piano scales and strings, where Slean once again gets to showcase those vocal chords.

Black Flowers is really an example of what a good covers album should be, with brave and inventive arrangements and an expert choice of songs that possess an internal logic, and will surely hold its own among Slean’s impressive canon of self-penned works.

P. Viktor
Available on import only; www.myspace.com/sarahslean


3 Comments so far
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I’m not sure with the album, but atleast live Sarah only did the vocals on this song and did not play the piano. Loved the final words you had for this review. I have posted tour dates of Sarah and the Art of Time Ensemble on littleslean.

Comment by Cameron / ProdigyBoy

thanks Cameron, I wasn’t sure if the piano was by Sarah or Andrew Burashko – has anyone got the liner notes? we only have a digital copy :(

Comment by Wears The Trousers magazine

[…] 48 Regina Spektor – Far [Nick Christian 28/6] 49 Art Of Time Ensemble featuring Sarah Slean – Black Flowers [P. Viktor 25/6] 50 She Keeps Bees – Revival EP [Joanne Gibson […]

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