wears the trousers magazine


christina courtin: christina courtin (2009)
August 12, 2009, 8:31 am
Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: , , ,

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Christina Courtin
Christina Courtin •••½
Nonesuch

Christina Courtin’s label-debut album throws the listener some unexpected curves. Touted as a purveyor of light country-tinged jazz, in the Norah Jones mould, Courtin proves herself to be a more idiosyncratic and experimental artist than that flawed comparison suggests. This is an engaging, pleasingly confounding collection of songs, the most memorable of which turn out to be somewhat closer in spirit to Joanna Newsom than Norah Jones. An alumna of Juilliard, where she studied the violin, Courtin’s previous collaborators have been a diverse bunch, including Yo-Yo Ma, Teddy Thompson, Ryan Adams, Dawn Upshaw and Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. While none of those big names turn up here, Courtin has nonetheless surrounded herself with a dependable cast of musicians, including drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Marc Ribot, pedal steel supremo Greg Leisz, Punch Brothers violinist Gabe Witcher and the venerable Jon Brion.

Courtin co-produced the album with bassist Greg Cohen and her regular guitarist Ryan Scott, and brings her pedigree and eclectic influences to bear on the album’s variously rootsy, poppy, rocky and classically-inflected songs. That said, Courtin and co. initially set the listener up for a relaxing wallow in acoustic sensitivity. The disarming ‘Green Jay’ opens the album in this vein, with gentle acoustic guitar, twangy Weissenborn, violin, brushed drums and a particularly winsome, wide-eyed vocal creating an inviting ambience. Courtin’s rather curious voice – sometimes tremulous, sometimes strident, occasionally a bit whiny – takes some getting used to but it has a distinctive quality that grows more appealing with each listen. The sweet, spare ‘Bundah’ is a touching if precious love song, while Courtin loosens up on the jaunty ‘Foreign Country’ which evokes The Be Good Tanyas at their most exuberant. ‘Hedonistic Paradise’ and the meandering piano dirge ‘Mulberries’ are less distinguished, though not without effective elements.

Around the mid-album mark, though, things start to get more interesting, or at least odder. ‘February’ begins by evoking Dar Williams’s song of the same name but ends up somewhere closer to Massive Attack, with eerie pedal steel and sweeping strings turning the track into an epic. ‘Laconia’ is stranger still; it starts out spare and fey but builds to an effectively dramatic coda on which Courtin unleashes her inner banshee, shrieking “How did I end up here? / And how do I get back?” over sturdy drums and Ribot’s and Brion’s squally electric guitars. On these tracks, Courtin comes off like a less self-satisfied St. Vincent, demonstrating a similar willingness to twist her songs in unexpected directions. The album then concludes with an intriguing trio of tracks: the straight-up country waltz of ‘One Man Down’, the album’s most stately, classical moment in ‘Rainy’ and the atmospheric slow-burner ‘Unzipped’.

Lyrically, Courtin’s songs are full of questions and enquiries which fit well with the album’s equivocal mix of styles. This is an elusive record of contradictory qualities, and while not all of it works, the album’s refusal to entirely “add up” ultimately proves to be a major part of its appeal. “Something good will come from me – one day,” sings Courtin on ‘Green Jay’. In fact, there’s some pretty good stuff here already. File under “Promising”.

Alex Ramon
UK release date: 06/07/09; www.myspace.com/christinacourtin

‘Foreign Country’ [live]


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