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The Cinematic Orchestra- Ma Fleur (Album Review)

The arts in Paris extend beyond the paintings and other visual art displays in the Louvre. Film noir, theater, and even the culinary arts have a distinct place in Parisian culture. Many a renaissance man finds himself at home in Paris, and Jason Swinscoe is no different. The bandleader and composer for The Cinematic Orchestra, Swinscoe reposed in Paris to finally make his band live up to its name. Yes, he and his bandmates composed a new soundtrack for the classic Man with a Movie Camera, but Ma Fleur is entirely a new creation. It takes the approach that so many other artists, especially in post-rock, are using to create albums. Ma Fleur is a soundtrack. What’s interesting, however, is that the soundtrack actually influenced the movie rather than vice versa. Swinscoe laid out base ideas for songs, and then took his ideas to a friend who came back with short stories based on the songs. He also commissioned artist and photographer Maya Hayuk to take pictures that represented each song. The themes of Ma Fleur are nothing new, dealing with loss and love in the journey from birth to death, but the musical accompaniment – or maybe it should be called the main attraction – is different from the downtempo, nu-jazz styles of their previous records. The Cinematic Orchestra’s latest effort is much more, well, orchestral. Epic. Yet still reserved and contemplative.

As always, the guest vocalists play an immense role on the album. On Ma Fleur, one quite nearly steals the show. Patrick Watson, a somber tenor with impeccable dynamic range, opens the album with “To Build a Home”. It serves as an organic opener to the album, much like many movies do. It grows from simple, slow piano chords to a full swell with a string section taking the instrumental forefront. Watson’s voice soars over the soundscape gracefully and beautifully, showing off his falsetto in the climaxes. Despite the personal, tangible style of “To Build a Home”, the rest of the album takes on a much more surreal style, relying on atmosphere rather than musical intricacy and virtuosity. Watson even returns to his same memorable lines from the opening track in the reprise “That Home”, singing “This is a place where I don’t feel alone/This is a place where I feel at home,” but it all seems miles away, mystical. There is a musical smokescreen that covers the face of The Cinematic Orchestra, blurring the lines between jazz, classical, and many other kinds of music. For this reason, the instrumental tracks are most ethereal, creating the best hazy atmosphere. From the string section feature “Prelude” to “As the Stars Fall”, which sounds like the ensemble’s older, jazzy efforts.

Still, the instrumental songs are few and the album relies on its vocal-based songs for its success. Fontella Bass makes a return to the ensemble, a long-time guest with the band, for two songs- “Familiar Ground” and “Breathe”. Fontella’s voice fits right into the band’s new sound for Ma Fleur, especially on “Breathe”. It sounds like her voice is singing from an AM radio station, delicately sitting on top of the sparse musical arrangement. Her calm, unwavering confidence adds to her effect, one of prophetic, uplifting purpose. “Time and Space” closes the album with the other guest vocalist on the album, Lou Rhodes. She possesses a deep alto, much in the range of Fontella’s, but her voice has a more expressive quality to it. Rhodes drops out after singing the intro to the track, where the band builds into their distinctive jazzy style. It makes a subtle, surreal, but extremely effective finale to the album.

Ma Fleur is a triumphant return for The Cinematic Orchestra, a certain rise in artistic expression for Jason Swinscoe and his instrumentalists. The album’s flaws are more in its presentation than its performance. As a whole, the album feels disjointed and broad. Each song represents a scene, and with what the listener is given, it is hard to imagine these scenes fitting together into any sort of movie. Swinscoe portrays the settings and expects the listeners to imagine everything else – plotline, characters, etc. The vocalists give vague ideas in their lyrics, but it is impossibly hard to connect everything together. Style and instrumentation vary heavily throughout the album. Still, it is an enjoyable, trance-inducing listen that stands among their releases as one of the most artistic and musical statements of the band’s career.
(Tyler Fisher)