JENNY DALTON – Fleur de Lily
(2006 Glossy Shoebox)
Rarely does a debut album come along that achieves the artistic heights of Jenny Dalton’s first release. It’s been a long time in the shaping, however, as Dalton has been writing songs since the age of eight.
A concept recording of sorts, Fleur de Lily is based on a year in which she went through a breakup and found new love, only to have her lover called off to military duty in Iraq. The result is more like a diary; a deep, dark look into Dalton’s state of mind as she wrestles through a difficult situation. It is not merely a pedestrian recounting of the days, however. Dalton wraps her emotions in poetic imagery and the type of uneven meter that Jane Siberry is so fond of using.
Though she doesn’t cite Ms. Siberry as an influence, she makes no bones about her admiration for the work of Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Kirsten Hersh and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though there is little trace of the latter and a noticeable lack of angst in her delivery and lyrics. It would also be far too easy to merely lump her in with her idols. Dalton possesses an innocence and honesty that doesn’t rely on theatrics or histrionics to make a point.
The sleeve design depicts Dalton in World War II-era garb and this is a deliberate attempt to illuminate the same personal struggles that war brings to every generation that must bear it. The songs are mostly brief, leaving the listener with a series of musical postcards which completes the theme that underscores the album.
Dalton’s piano forms the centerpiece for her compositions. Though several musicians assist her, most notably bassist Matthew Freed and drummer Don Greenwood from the Minneapolis band Cloud Cult, their instrumentation serves to adorn the piano-based songs. The arrangements are gorgeous; lilting strings and melancholy cello, swelling, ethereal guitar passages and heavy, resonant bass. At times the ensemble hints at the ability to rock ferociously, as on “Snake Oil.” But the most successful songs are those that float with piano and strings.
The opener, “At Ease,” actually starts in the middle of the tale as her soldier returns for a two-week leave, unable to relate to either her or his surroundings. The vocal is single-voice narrative, as is most of the album, and though this reinforces the postcard effect, the few harmonies that drift in are a welcome variation. Only on the last song, the lush and beautiful “Cadence,” does she harmonize in earnest. Here the guitar swells and piano and vocals meld together perfectly. “Deep Dark Secrets” is another outstanding track, a little discomforting even. The string arrangement is excellent and Dalton highlights the piece with other subtle keyboard sounds. “Iraqi Sky” is another successful marriage of keys and strings to produce a dreamlike soundscape that underpins the lyrics.
Not all of the tracks are part of the story. “Three Lilies” addresses the dreamworld and “Lily and the Stranger” was written as a prequel to Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” But Dalton manages to tie it all together nicely with the fleur-de-lis imagery of strength and perseverance in the graphics and in the title.