Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Review: Sarah Slean, "Beauty Lives"

There's a tricky logic involved with collections of b-sides; the songs included are ones, by principle, deemed unfit (for whatever reason) to be included on an album - yet including them on a separate release gives them a strange sort of legitimacy that abandoned outtakes don't possess.

Sarah Slean's last b-sides album, The Baroness Redecorates, consisted of songs from the same sessions; tracks united by their shared era and similar instrumentation. Beauty Lives is not only comprised of songs from all periods of Slean's career, but the chosen songs themselves were largely determined by her fans.

Thankfully, Slean manages to avert a potentially sticky situation - what if her fans chose weaker but more popular songs over stronger material? - and produce a collection of songs that offers an enjoyable display of her talent, serves as a holiday gift to her fans, and provides enough to occupy oneself with until her double album Land and Sea hits shelves sometime in the new year.

On first listen, Beauty Lives (the cover of which was painted by Slean herself, also an accomplished poet and string arranger) may appear to largely consist of meditative piano balladry in the vein of Fiona Apple or Tori Amos, a genre Slean is often unfairly pigeonholed into, so it's a relief that most of the songs distinguish themselves as the disc unfolds. Chief among the highlights are "Everything By The Gallon" - a song that, if time travel were possible, could have easily found itself slipped into Edith Piaf's setlists with its subtle hints of accordion, cabaret feel and rousing chorus - and the optimistic, uptempo ballad "The Right Words".

Both songs come from the mid-to-present period in Slean's career, from which three other strong compositions, the pensive "Count Me Out", quirky "Hooligans" and hopeful "My Song", come. "My Song" is of particular note, as Slean has hinted it may get the full-orchestra treatment on the Sea half of her upcoming album; one can easily imagine sweeping strings and rumbling percussion behind Slean's vocals, so hearing quiet military snare instead on this particular version is a bit disappointing.

The rest of the songs were written by Slean before 2000, and as one might expect, are a bit of a mixed bag. Some, like "Ogoni Star" and "Closer", sound not unlike early Sarah McLachlan, and seem to show Slean in the process of finding her own territory as an artist; others, including "Sadie" - a letter of sorts to a young girl accompanied by toy piano - hint at the romantic, often theatrical vein present in much of Slean's later music.

Considering the songs themselves are generally strong, the one most disagreeable element of Beauty Lives is, surprisingly, its track listing. "Count Me Out" makes for a fairly jarring opener, and the finality of "The Right Words" means that the two songs following it, "I Do" and "Glenn Gould Song", seem strangely out of place. Curiously enough, a radically different track listing was available upon pre-order - on it, "I Do" opens the album, and "My Song", third in the final listing, closes the album instead.

Luckily, we live in the iTunes age, in which entire albums can be dissected and rearranged to one's heart's content, so this shouldn't prove much of a problem, but it does prove a bit unfortunate that such a strong set of songs has a less-than-satisfactory order.

Considering its nature as a b-side collection, Beauty Lives may not be the best introduction to Sarah Slean - The Baroness and The Baroness Redecorates are recommended listens for anyone interested in her music - but it's a fine display of what she has, and has yet, to offer.


  1. Hey Paul I would really recommend doing some movie reviews. You could start with Inception and then maybe Easy A (my favorite movie ever)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. I've done a few movie reviews already (check the Blog Archive, under August 2009) but I'm always willing to do more. I saw Inception in the summer, so I think my chance for writing a review has gone. I have yet to see Easy A, but I've heard very good things about it.