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The Cinematic Orchestra - Ma Fleur

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Artist: The Cinematic Orchestra

Album: Ma Fleur

Label: Domino

Review date: Jul. 31, 2007

With his fourth full-length under the Cinematic Orchestra banner, J. Swinscoe obviously wanted to create music that had conventional beauty and delicacy. He’s augmented the regular CO core of instrumentalists with a cast of vocalists, each of which gets a couple of tracks as the featured voice. Throw in a few extended instrumental interludes, as well as a string prelude to kick off the album’s second half, and one has all the makings of an ambitious song cycle. It’s a shame then, that the whole thing leaves the listener unmoved, and more than a little bored.

Default mode here is the slow soul ballad of the overproduced kind, where a lone voice laments and ponders against a backdrop of strings, hushed piano chords, brittle guitar arpeggios, subdued drumming and deep, mournful bass. Soul legend Fontella Bass lends her seasoned pipes to “Breathe” and “Familiar Ground,” while on the album opener and closer, Patrick Watson adds a wavering, high-register croon that’s only a few steps below Antony’s. I say “default mode” because aside from the instrumental title track and a few other passages, Ma Fleur is surprisingly homogenous. The tempo never exceeds a swaying mid-range, and the arrangements, blending too seamlessly with the vocalists, fail to provide contrast.

On his previous releases, Swinscoe has shown himself to be a sensitive arranger with an ear for simple, sculpted melodies and taut rhythms. On these 10 pieces he doesn’t disappoint, with every detail polished to perfection. The beats are crisp, ensemble colors glow warmly, the swells and ebbs of the interaction occur smoothly while Phil France’s double bass anchors it all with a satisfying old-wood heft. Swinscoe has obviously found his comfort zone – only he’s afraid to leave it. For Ma Fleur that lack of risk means it misses its shot at beauty, and instead settles for comfort.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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