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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: Clara Berry - Wave

Clara Berry - Wave
2008, Clara Berry

Portland, Maine's Clara Berry is an enigmatic singer/songwriter with a sound and style that's nearly born of another era. The pianist writes with a flourish that recalls early Tori Amos, an intensity reminiscent of Fiona Apple and a dark searching quality that's almost Baroque. In 2008 Berry released her debut album, Wave, earning recognition from The Portland Press Herald as one of "10 Maine Bands To Watch". With songs recorded in essentially one take each with minimal over-dubbing, Wave presents a performance that's practically live. This means you do get the occasional oops, but it's possible that you'll be so intrigued you many not even notice.

Clara Berry has a distinctively dark alto imbued with waves of melancholy wisdom, as if she were an old musical soul trapped in the midst of youth. Wave opens with The Widow's Watch, an intriguing and dark composition that ebbs and flows like the early throes of high tide. Nightwalker is a dark waltz that plays like subtle horror movie in song; Berry's vocals are dark and lonely in a song about the sea taking her toll on those who live near. The Iron Gate continues in this direction, using a lyrical style that's more prose than poetry. The Iron Gate is a sea tragedy like the best of those that come out of the Celtic and Folk music traditions but is offered here as gothic piano pop aria.

Motherless Child is a classic spiritual, and I've heard many renditions over the years, but I've never heard one that sounded sensual to me. Berry manages this trick with a vocal line that's sultry and dark without ever giving up on the spirit of the song. Old Man River makes interesting use of the theme of the classic song as its inspiration. The song inspire deep ambivalence in me as a listener, bring moments where I could lean equally toward liking and disliking the song without ever really finding a resolution after numerous listens. Either the way it's an intriguing composition. The absolute highlight of the disc, however, is Crossroads; there's a Broadway musical behind this song somewhere. It's an amazing piece of writing. There's a certain quality to Berry when she's performing at the top of her game; it's something I haven't been quite able to put my finger on, but it's fully in display here. She's quirky, but that's not it exactly. She's unusual; weird in a darkly wonderful fashion. While there are several folks who may have had influence on her sound over time, Berry is very much her own performer with her own style.

As a listener, I found myself wishing Berry had stopped with Crossroads. It's far and away the best songwriting on the disc and the sort of song that could gain her some real exposure down the road. The songs that come afterward (Doubt, Lizzie Borden, On This Boat and The Doll) are all intriguing but don't quite hit the same heights as the first half or so of Wave. This is truly a first recording and a bit rough compared to what Berry's likely to be doing in the next few years. The material that works shows flashes of brilliance (particularly on Crossroads where the flash runs about 3m 17s. On the last few songs Berry gets a bit stuck in a rut, perhaps, but that latter material just isn't as inspired as the first half of Wave. Ultimately, it's a great introduction to Berry, who's currently attending college to study music and continue to grow in her craft. Artistically, she's already got something special, and those flashes of songwriting brilliance are a strong indication that more will come. Make sure you get to know Clara Berry now, as the time may come when she's become too big to get to know.

Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)

You can learn more about Clara Berry at You can download a copy of Wave from iTunes.

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