Caught In The Carousel - Review by Thomas Cooney April 15th 2014
From the very first note Joanna Swan sings on the title track to Ilya’s latest album, Blind As Hope,
it’s clear that she is intent on redefining the word “sumptuous.”
Ilya—basically Joanna Swan and her husband Nick Pullin—hails from
Bristol, England. After reaching worldwide fame with their 2004 single
“Bellissimo” and album, They Died for Beauty, Ilya has pushed the boundaries on three follow up albums and one ep, all to varying degrees of success (2006’s Somerset rivals They Died for Beauty in its cinematic sweep, where 2012’s Fathoms Deep felt as if the duo’s anchor had broken free and there was panic at sea).
In the hands and minds (and hearts) of less-determined artists, Fathoms Deep
might have been the wreckage of what once was. But Ilya dove into the
burgeoning ocean of crowd-sourcing and have breached to surface with
their finest album in almost a decade. Halfway into the title track,
the song is handed over as a kind and gentle nod to their backers—the
Ilya Worldwide Congregation—who sing as an assembled chorus and in so
doing take the song to a finale suited for a Sunday gospel. This
building of a song to an emotional chorus always strikes me as a bit
facile: one is easily moved by a voice of many. But at the last minute
Swan comes in and ties the bow on the song as only she can do, and what
might have been a platitude is instead a moving statement of optimism.
(Caughtinthecarousel is honored that Ilya has offered to give the song
as a free download to our readers.)
Swan’s voice rushes into the second song: “Come now/Call me by name”
she sings on “Tapestry.” The song is at the will of her multi-octave
voice, a voice from the heavens. As with several of the songs on this
album, there is a minstrel-meets- Game of Thrones aura to it; do
not confuse this with Renaissance Faire pabulum. This is music that
seems to genuinely traverse a dark and haunting landscape. The success
is finalized with Pullin’s biting and insistent guitar; from 3:00 to
3:30 is some of Pullin’s finest work to date.
That attention to musicalities (beyond the obvious towering
achievement of Swan’s vocals) is immediately apparent at the very
beginning of the next song, “Lacrimosa.” The wonderfully soft tribal
tom-tom drum-meets-tiki is directly descendent from Peter Gabriel’s 1980
studio version of “No Self Control” (a song that, by the way, had the
great Kate Bush on backing vocals). Where two songs earlier Swan handed
part of the vocals to a choir (of sorts), this time she shares the
vocals first with the angelic voice of Henry Duckett and then the
youthful tenor of George McCarthy. Again, as with the title track, Swan
comes in at song’s end, this time aching as she twice sings the words
“If you go away,” before her voice drifts into a gorgeous collapsing
mumble. The result is a holy trinity in and of itself; a gorgeous
requiem for our age.
“Endgame,” follows with a John Barry-esque opening and then
harmonizes in a manner reminiscent of The Hollies’ “The Air That I
Breathe.” The arrangement is more complex in Pullin’s blueprint than
that 60s classic, however, and the song stands on its own as a remnant
cinematic echo of 2004’s They Died for Beauty.
“Call My Name,” returns us to the brooding minstrel terrain. The
vocals here reach new heights (or depths in this case) for Swan; her
voice achieves such astonishing reach that one senses she’d be pleased
to no end if people at times take her voice as that of a man’s when she
reaches as deep as she does in the first minute of this lush ballad.
Once she untethers her voice, the listener feels afloat, riding as high
as Swan invites. And then things get crazy. Stupid crazy. Unfair.
It seems every time a review is written for an Ilya project, one is
proclaiming a song as their new unheralded masterpiece. Track 6, “The
Memory,” is so possessed and terrifyingly sublime that Swan seems
otherworldly herself. I once wrote that Swan’s “vocals are thoroughly
enmeshed with the narrative of the song, her movements inhabit the song
the way only the ghost of the architect can haunt a mansion.” When I wrote that
over six months ago, I had no way of knowing that a song would come
forth as a perfect illustration of that. If you are a fan of ethereal
power vocals, then “The Memory” is the drug that is waiting to meet you
for the first—but never the last—time.
Pete Judge’s sensuous flugelhorn invites us to land softly on the
gorgeous next song. “Longest Day.” This could have been a track on the
duo’s brilliant Somerset album. It is a song that is a chaise
longue underneath a soft marine layer forcing the summer sun to simmer
down a bit. It’s the tastiest Kir cocktail you’ve ever tasted, with one
lonely cube of ice clinking the glass in a rhythm all its own. As they
say in France: formidable!
A listener wouldn’t be wrong to perhaps want a bit more air and light
into the songs, especially with Swan’s voice that is a seven-course
meal compared to the mass produced appetizer voices out there. There’s a
famous quote by Noel Coward about another genius vocalist: “Piaf in her
dusty black dress is still singing sad songs about bereft tarts longing
for their lovers to come back and still, we must face it,
singing them beautifully, but I do so wish she would pop in a couple
cheerful ones just for the hell of it.” And also—there’s no way to put
this other than the truth (as I hear it)—the album’s final three songs
are the step-children of the brood. “Timeless Light” is Ilya doing
Ilya; “A Little Misadventure” once again recalls Peter Gabriel III
(melting face) album, only this time Kate Bush is replaced with Swan’s
best operatic intimations of Klaus Nomi.
“Mystery and Wonder” is a perfectly-titled song to close out the album. As
with so much of Ilya’s best work, Swan’s voice—and let’s give credit
where it is also due, because Pullin knows exactly how to write for
her—guides the listener across a lush canvas. Towards the very end of
the song, there is a definite African influence; for a brief moment I
worried that this was headed in Lion King soundtrack territory. That it veered away from any sort of cloying sentimentality is one of a thousand reasons why Blind As Hope is a clear and early front runner for 2014’s Album of the Year.