Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Review: Dala, Best Day

 Best Day, Dala's fifth album, finds the Canadian folk duo harnessing every last drop of its inherent potential and, in the process, truly coming into its own. Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther have been consistently releasing albums over the past decade, each new record accompanied by increased critical attention, both in their native Canada and abroad; they're favorites of Stuart McLean's influential CBC radio show The Vinyl Cafe, and recorded a live special with PBS called Girls from the North Country in 2009.

What makes Carabine and Walther special is their ability to write heartbreaking ballads like "Horses" and songs as warm and breezy as "20 Something" - not to mention do excellent covers, like their chilling take on Neil Young's "Ohio" - with none of it coming across as forced or insincere. While this versatility has always been a key element of their live shows, along with their natural chemistry and wicked sense of humour, it hasn't always come across in their studio recordings; tracks like "Levi Blues" often felt more genuine stripped down to their bare essentials than on their parent albums.

Best Day completely sidesteps any such issues by choosing to focus squarely on the girls and their music, a decision that benefits everyone involved, including the listener. The light and airy production gives the duo's songs much-needed room to breathe, allowing the girls' personalities to shine through to a degree that wasn't much present on past albums. This pared-back approach to production carries over to Best Day's choice of instruments, with little more than guitar, piano, ukulele and xylophone - yes, xylophone - used on the album. (In a refreshing contrast to many 'pop' records these days, strings are only used to highlight, rather than overpower, melodies.)

One of the critical - and often underappreciated - factors relevant to Dala's success is how well their voices complement each other, with Walther's ethereal soprano balanced by Carabine's more down-to-earth alto. The best songs on the album take full advantage of this, letting the duo play off each other in unexpected and richly rewarding ways. The sublime "Lennon & McCartney" cleverly riffs on the 'opposites attract' theme ("He likes Lennon for the heavy meanings/Me, I'm still in love with Paul"), and Best Day's title track transforms what could have been clich√© into something far more satisfying and uplifting.

It's easy to regard music as bright and effortless-sounding as this with suspicion, but songs like "Life on Earth" indicate that beneath that sunny attitude rests seriously well-thought-out songcraft. Best Day is the closest Dala's come yet to replicating their live sound on record, and as a result, it's the strongest album of Carabine and Walther's career. One hopes that it'll be the record that brings Carabine and Walther to mainstream attention, but even if it isn't, the duo can be confident that if they continue to make albums as excellent as Best Day, acclaim will naturally follow suit.

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