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27 : Animal Life

REVIEW: 27: Animal Life
6.16.2002 by Sean

27 : Animal Life [Kimchee, 2002]

Three words? Cold, rich songs.

Equal parts lush and raw, 27 dances on a brittle glass skin, a strange smile on its lips. Hips sway, sample-driven landscapes flow backwards through the sky, and songs backstroke from pop to triphop to bedroom lofi. Maria Christopher's milky voice gives sinister clues even as she delivers fuzzy Neil Young rockers like "Trouble Heart"; Portishead warnings lilt and shimmer over "Sky Walker"'s broken filmscore. Animal Life is one of those fine debuts where a band communicates an individual vision, clear-as-crystal, tapping influences while stepping beyond them. It is cold - too cold, I think - but the frigidity is what mesmerises: the lure of the Ice Queen's turkish delight, the magic of frozen fire.

At forty-one minutes, Animal Life feels short. The songs fit together into a compact whole, an opaque gem. Most songs take a similar form - repeated strains of guitar, drums or pipes, and smooth vocals on top. The album, then, relies on the strength of the singer's delivery, and the breadth of the samples involved. On the first count, I give cautious approval. Christopher sounds like a less groovy Skye Edwards (Morcheeba), or a sexier Mary Timony (Helium). Her lyrics are enigmatic whirligigs - "It's a post burn..." (from "Cavalla") - her style intimate. There's a wicked confidence in Christopher's singing, however - a tone of menace that lurks beneath the minor chords - and this is nearly inescapable on Animal Life. Even when things sound harmless, loving - on "Devil's Play", for instance - I can't help but feel Christopher is ready to bite. It's enticing, fascinating, but also a little exhausting: the disk never feels safe, and I would not crawl into its bed.

As for the other sounds, 27 presents a fascinating panorama - from serpent-summoning flutes to electric feedback jams. The trio prefers the understatedness of Slint or Beth Orton to the bombast of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, and most of the songs stay well clear of the guitar crashing on "Heat Sink". "No Water" takes an unsettling piano sample and pairs it with dark, murmuring background vocals. Sunny brass makes an appearance amidst the understated jingle of "Undone", but when Christopher sings "Oh what a happy day," it feels like a veiled threat. My favourite of the tracks is "Cavalla": a broken, beautiful, lovely-then-noisy song. Its rock'n'roll belly is cut short, cut off, hissed at and smothered in pure white pillows. It's neutralized with a smile, buried alive under camel-shuffle woodblocks, a dusky whistle, long, cool singing.

Animal Life is a difficult album to like. Its landscapes are full of deep blues and fresh greens, but everywhere a chilling wind blows - from hilltops come bitter stares. Once you've learned 27's rules however - once you accept that the love is gone, the knife twist will twist, the warmth is a taunt - the album's rewards outweigh its dangers, the strength of its vision outweighs its sting.

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