Review: Leona Naess’ “Thirteens”

Sep 24, 2008 5:39pm

  There are many talented adult-alternative, female singer-songwriters out there. Leona Naess is one of many.  Sad thing is, if you have ever read anything about her, no doubt it’s been emphasized that she is Diana Ross’ former step-daughter and Ryan Adams’ former girlfriend.  What gets lost in the mix is that neither of these bits of information really should matter.  Of course, I have just mentioned them, but I’ve done so in order to point out that on her own, Naess has released four decent albums. That is what should matter. Ironically, despite the heavy name-dropping that often follows her around, true mainstream success has eluded her. It’s not like she never released anything radio-ready.  Her critically-acclaimed 2000 debut, “Comatised,” featured the buzz-worthy “Charm Attack.”  Two years later, the title-track from her album “I Tried To Rock You But You Only Roll,” should’ve been a hit, with its power-pop structure, strong sense of humor and its effective use of handclaps. Her 2003, self-titled effort, featured “Dues to Pay,” a grade-A love-gone-wrong number that forward-thinking radio stations should have firmly embraced.  If it had been a single, it would’ve been a hit and it would’ve set the stage for bigger things. Released five years to the day after her last album, “Thirteens” is Naess’ fourth and strongest effort to date.  The long time-gap must’ve definitely been put to good use.  This is a mature effort from a singer who knows her strengths.  It has a nice balance between the wintry tones of her last record with pop-edged moments recalling her first-two albums.  A soft rattle and an acoustic guitar set of “Ghost in the Attic.” It’s an intimate, confessional tune.  In a truly inspired move, the chorus has ghost-like backing vocals in the form of a subtle, tuneful moaning refrain.  Such attention to detail makes the song better. “Leave Your Boyfriends Behind” starts off with a guitar part that brings to mind snow falling on a field, but as the song progresses, it becomes a jubilant, bar-room sing-along.  It ends with a group of people loudly singing the chorus, “Let’s go out late, drink a lot….dance all night and leave our boyfriends behind.”  It sounds like a drunken, good time, as if Naess got all her friends together and packed them all into a room. “Learning As We Go” recalls the reflective side of Feist, particularly in Naess’ vocal delivery.  The song is gentle, sweet and mournful.  It feels like she’s singing directly to you, especially if you are listening on headphones. Halfway through, the tempo picks up, with a drum-beat and more instrumentation, but it remains carefully crafted.     “Unnamed (This Song Makes Me Happy)” is a relaxed dance number with shimmering keyboards and electronic flourishes.  It recalls the Euro-dance detours on “I Tried To Rock You But You Only Roll.”  Even within an electronic context, Naess still maintains a sense of warmth.  “Not the Same Girl” returns us to a snowier, acoustic soundscape.  There’s sophistication to the instrumentation here. The acoustic guitar dances along the carefully brushed beat and Naess’ voice remains the focal point. She harmonizes with herself, strings and various keyboard-parts subtly come and go and the whole song feels like a welcome lullaby.  The rhythm and instrumentation of “Swing Swing Gently,” make the song feel like a breathing being.  “I can’t tell you that I won’t hurt you, but I’ll promise to try. / Everyone wants a piece of pie, honey. / I just want him alive,” she sings.  Who she’s referring to is unclear, but a good guess would be her father, a well-known Norwegian magnate who was killed in a mountain-climbing accident four years ago. As the track progresses, it grows and grows, becoming more immense and fantastic.  The instrumentation gives it a well-earned feeling of importance.  Single, “Heavy Like Sunday” is next.  It’s a wonderfully complex tune, bouncing from another quietly reflective verse-section to an upbeat, catchy chorus.  The first line of the chorus vaguely brings to mind the tune of the first line of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”  As she sings, “I cannot wait, no, I cannot wait forever,” you may catch yourself being reminded of Paul Simon singing, “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.”  It’s in a different key, and it only vaguely sounds like it for a moment, so it’s not an obvious rip, but it’s interesting to note, especially when elsewhere in the song, Naess sings, “Let’s get married, / Raise our own family.”  Naess’ song is comforting and familiar.  It doesn’t hit you over the head with obviousness.  It’s a thoughtful, well-made track thus it probably won’t be given the chance to get the success it deserves.  “Shiny on the Inside” is still acoustic but it is given a toe-tapping rhythm that quickly gives way to a powerful, subtly funky drum-beat. Naess sings, still with a mellow tone, but infuses it with an authoritative, effortlessly bluesy sheen.  It’s obvious she is in control and her clear voice is a natural gift.  She possesses a jazziness in her delivery.  “The Lipstick Song” sounds old-time-y.  It sounds timeless, actually.  Imagine a female answer to M. Ward and you’ve got the idea of this track’s sound.  In addition, the track has a wonderful, muted trumpet solo.  “When Sharks Attack” sounds dreamy and hypnotic during its verses.  It then switches to an orchestral, Fiona Apple-esque chorus.  In fact, throughout this album, Naess manages to take verses and choruses which wouldn’t obviously go together and carefully fit them.  It’s a clever trick because it keeps the listener intrigued and guessing.  “On My Mind” closes the traditional version of the album, and it’s the most straightforward track here.  Naess sings at the forefront, backed by her own acoustic guitar, a bass, a mandolin, strings and a glockenspiel.  (“Honey, you’ve been on my mind, like Christmas and birthdays when I was five.”)  She’s a master at nailing lyrics that bring to mind clear images.  On this record, she exhibits a newfound sharpness.  This is yet another album to come packed with two tracks exclusive to the version available at Barnes & Noble.  Once again, I say that I think the marketplace should be uniform, but business is business and this is the way it is.  The first of those bonus tracks is “On My Toes,” a finger-snapping, acoustic number with a woozy clarinet fading in and out on the track.  The second bonus track is “Hiccups” a nicely reflective, song with a quietly rhythmic bass.  If on “The Lipstick Song,” she sounded like a female M. Ward, here she sounds like a female Sondre Lerche.  Both these tracks are essential and don’t sound tacked on in the least.  “Thirteens” would be a perfect soundtrack to a blustery, Sunday afternoon in Fall.  If you’ve never heard of Leona Naess before and are intrigued by this review, this album would be an excellent place to start.

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