Review Summary: A mishmash of variations on avant garde pop perfection.Between Blood and Ocean
begins with the incredibly pleasant “Uranium City”. Almost entirely piano led with soft percussion that doesn’t sound unlike a glockenspiel. Swain’s voice is very gentle on the track, barely raising above a whisper, sounding reminiscent of the best of Regina Spektor. It’s an incredibly nice, if unspectacular, start to the journey that Courtney Swain is about to lead us on. It’s also an incredibly misleading path to start the journey on, as the rest of the album breaks free of all conventions that seemed to be laid down in the opening track. “Uranium City”, even with its bleak theme of isolation, is the calm before the apocalyptic avant-garde pop masterpiece completely breaks loose.
With the second track “Sweet Snow” it almost immediately becomes clear that “Uranium City” was a red herring of an opener. An eerie tone whistles in, before sound on sound layers in. A repetitive percussive sample, a simple acoustic riff, Swain’s slightly affected haunted vocals, a hairpin diminuendo of a breathy synth, a basic piano line - All building into an ominously beautiful dream like state. The song continues to expand until, quite suddenly, half of the accoutrements drop out and leave us with Swain’s voice and piano, jolting us from the dream, but only momentarily. The song then returns to its build, adding additional layers and becoming even more haunting, somehow creating a feeling of claustrophobia while avoiding panic. It’s a dark forest of a song, with beauty that invites you deeper and deeper into, even though you don’t know what’s on the other side. The song perfectly represents the entirety of Between Blood and Ocean
, even though, stylistically, the album continues to take risks not even seen on “Sweet Snow” - The album is so engrossing that it’s hard to tear away from, even though it makes up its own rules as it goes along.
Really every song on the album could deserve it’s own paragraph long write-up for how uniquely brilliant each is. The two tracks that follow “Sweet Snow” again stylistically break from what we’ve heard so far, with both being upbeat (in rhythm alone, not themes or feel), with Swain again creating incredible musical atmospheres. “I’d Kill” features one of the most oddly toned guitar solo I’ve heard of and “Don’t Look at Me” follows suit with a cacophonous explosion of synth, distorted guitar, pounding drums, and vocal gymnastics by Swain. Unlike the first two songs, there’s nothing delicate about these tracks, especially in Swain’s voice. She takes the opportunity to prove she really is a masterclass vocalist, playing with dynamics and belting across the tracks, with a particularly engaging and noticeable vibrato. The stylistic break from the beginning of the album is clear and can feel somewhat jarring, but in a way that is completely intentional. The entire album feels as though it is on the brink of an emotional collapse, with themes of loneliness and isolation being prevalent - Although they stand out rhythmically, “I’d Kill” and “Don’t Look At Me” still run across the emotional gauntlet that ties the album together, all while delivering earworms in a genre where they may not necessarily be expected.
Swain also shines on the numerous ballads-of-sorts found on the album. A distinctly wintery-feel abounds, both in sound, lyrical content, and song titles, and that feel permeates most strongly on the more intimate tracks. “Snowflakes” begins barebones, with Swain’s soft voice, simple piano chords, and additional sound effects. The song leads to catharsis in the surprisingly catchy chorus, with twinkling guitar and piano and Swain showing off jumps in her vocal range as she sings:
Snowflakes dance alone in the night
Gently pulsating with star light
As the dawn breaks they kiss the ground
A carpet of love for where you stand
Even the beauty of “Snowflakes” is merely a sign of things yet to come. “Hekla” is another piano led ballad filled with lyrical highlights as it delivers detailed imagery of a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Closer “Sand Angels” is the strongest of the slower tracks on the album, which is no small feat. Starting with a minute of ambient soundscapes, it fades away to keyboards that resembles Sigur Ros’ ( )
and Swain’s voice delicately entering. The song is a slow build across a near seven-minute run time, with simple and effective instruments in the back, allowing Swain’s voice to be front and center. She is emotionally vulnerable and incredibly engaging - Every word that she sings feels real and raw and valuable, often ending with a perfect amount of vibrato. She is able to go from a low register to a belt and transfer quickly to a soaring falsetto or a heartbreaking falsetto, all seamlessly. Lyrically it is beautiful and vulnerable, a lesson in learning to accept and love oneself.
Between Blood and Ocean
isn’t just a mishmash songs that are either/or stylistically, with several tracks across the album featuring the best of both worlds while still continuing to expand on the genre hopping Swain excels at. Even though the album goes across the board stylistically, the album never feels tonally inconsistent, mainly because there are small themes tying many songs together. “Silver Needle of Pine” starts as, seemingly, another piano driven ballad, but turns into a post-rock inspired full-speed jam with instrumental prowess (of which Swain plays many) taking center stage. “White Trees” is a full on assault of sounds, synth, and a scathing vocal performance, while “Black Sheep” is essentially a grunge rocker. Swain’s distinct style is never lost, even as the sounds expand and more and more is found. With this successful diversification of sounds mixed with pure beauty, Between Blood and Ocean
is a masterpiece of experimentation, beauty, and emotional exploration. It’s a lesson in intense creativity, a lesson that continues to unfold itself across the multiple listens that it demands.