Courtney Swain
Between Blood and Ocean


5.0
classic

Review

by Mathias USER (23 Reviews)
September 12th, 2019 | 21 replies


Release Date: 05/01/2019 | Tracklist

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.



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user ratings (5)
4.4
superb

Comments:Add a Comment 
dmathias52
September 12th 2019


847 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Watch out Copeland! This just might be my new AOTY. Released back in May, but sometimes Spotify manages to give you the perfection recommendation. Been jamming this for weeks and finally decided to bump my rating and write something.

Also about a month into grad school, which means I've been listening to music a whole. Thought I wouldn't have much time to write, but it turns out it's been one of my preferred methods of self-care. Hence the amount of reviews I've been pumping out! That being said, I will always take feedback.

Now that being said, stop reading and go listen to this album.

Digging: Courtney Swain - Between Blood and Ocean

Dewinged
Contributing Reviewer
September 12th 2019


16651 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

You did it you madman!



Great album and great review!

Digging: Kayo Dot - Blasphemy

dmathias52
September 12th 2019


847 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Thanks Dewi! I’ve been hyping it so much to people I figured I might as well just go for it lol. I’m glad you liked it!

Listening to Bent Knee now and holy cow they’re insane too

Dewinged
Contributing Reviewer
September 12th 2019


16651 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Yeah dude, their last one is amazing.

Lucman
September 14th 2019


3202 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

I cannot say enough good things about Sweet Snow. A strong SOTY contender, it's so wonderfully captivating and it takes you on a journey like no other. This album has been growing on me a lot recently too. The stylistic shifts that didn't quite work for me first go around are starting to come together.



Beautifully written review too, man.

Digging: Courtney Swain - Between Blood and Ocean

dmathias52
September 14th 2019


847 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Glad you're enjoying it Lucman! It's for sure a grower. Started as a four for me, but I just keep going back to it constantly. And Sweet Snow is really something else. Even though it's not my favorite on the album (I love the ballads), I don't think the album would work without it.

Lucman
September 15th 2019


3202 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Agreed! I can definitely see me bumping this to a 5. The run from Don't Look At Me to Hekla is so perfect.

Lucman
September 15th 2019


3202 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

So yeah, um, I'm handing this a 5. I'm blown away, utterly blown away.

dmathias52
September 15th 2019


847 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Heck yeah man! I can't stop listening to it. It's the combination of the really successful (and dark) experimentation while still feeling incredibly genuine that makes it for me. Now we just have to get other people to listen too.

I'm gonna go into her back catalogue the next few days. She's also lead singer of a prog rock band called Bent Knee that I would recommend checking. Just listened to them for the first time a few days ago.

Lucman
September 15th 2019


3202 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

I've heard! Listened to the Bent Knee debut last night. It's different but I can see elements of it here too. I'm looking forward to hearing the rest.

WatchItExplode
September 15th 2019


7098 Comments


Damn. Forgot about this better fix that.

dmathias52
September 16th 2019


847 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Check back in when you do! Can't recommend it enough

nightbringer
September 18th 2019


613 Comments


I checked this after you rec'ed it in the Copeland thread. Pretty intriguing. Not sure yet whether it's for me. Definitely lured in enough to give it a couple more listens though.

SowingSeason
Moderator
September 18th 2019


32091 Comments


You had me at "watch out Copeland"

If this is even half as good I'll love it

Great review!

Digging: Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell

Rik VII
September 18th 2019


4039 Comments


Listened to this when it came out, but it wasn't in the database back then and I couldn't be bothered to add it. Didn't blow me away, but I'll re-listen before rating. There's some great stuff on it for sure, and she is, without exaggeration, one of the best singers around at the moment.

dmathias52
September 18th 2019


847 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Just as a heads up, this one is definitely a grower! It started out as a solid four for me, but then I kept returning to it because it wouldn't leave my head and it grew every listen. And still is! The stylistic changes can be jarring first listen, so def give it a couple listens!

But yeah Rik, I totally agree about her vocals. Her vocal range and versatility is absolutely wild.

WatchItExplode
September 18th 2019


7098 Comments


Some bold stylistic choices here. There are some great moments and I really love white trees. That said I felt like sometimes the songwriting was a bit undercooked. She tries to prop some slower tunes up with her ethereal vocals unfortunately they are not quite strong enough to validate the approach imo.

Still glad I checked and will give a few more spins to see if it grows.

Lucman
September 18th 2019


3202 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

My experience was the same as mathias'. It started at a 4 for me and just grew from there. It's the instrumentation and the stylistic diversity that makes this truly stand out.

HBFS
September 19th 2019


1354 Comments


Hekla is absolutely gorgeous.

dmathias52
September 19th 2019


847 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Helkla is definitely climbing up my list of favorites. Probably my favorite vocal performance of the year.



@WatchItExplode That’s an interesting interpretation and I can see where you’re coming from. The slower songs are actually probably my favorite. I think they have crazy strong melodies, even if they’re somewhat bare instrument wise. It probably does come down to how you feel about her vocals.



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