Review: Timbre – Sun & Moon
Timbre, a woman known to make hauntingly personal and spiritual songs with voice and harp, has created her grandest work yet with Sun & Moon, a concept album based on the dichotomous relationship of the protagonists in George MacDonalds beloved 1882 fairytale The Day Boy and Night Girl.
As her solo career has progressed over the past decade, Timbre’s albums have gotten decreasingly sparse and increasingly bright. While 2008’s exquisite Winter Comes To Wake You was entirely melancholic and almost exclusively based around piano, harp, and voice, 2010’s Little Flowers has a more colorful palette that frequently features drums, strings, and woodwinds, evoking Springtime while remaining grounded in the bittersweet.
This progression has set the stage for Sun & Moon, an ambitious double album with a “pop” music half (Sun) and a “classical” music half (Moon). There is of course a bit of bleed between the two traditions on each record, as Timbre’s artistic output has largely been defined by exploring the common ground between moody chamber pop and the majesty of traditional Christian church music.
Timbre’s secret weapon on Sun is drummer Mason Self, a tasteful maverick who brings relentless creativity and refined power to what are otherwise very delicate pieces. The arpeggiated harp shredding that starts halfway through “Night Girl: Nycteris Sees The Sun” could be a forgotten Bach sonata if not for Self’s booming groove (see above video). The added instrumentation brings Sun closer to standard indie-pop territory than the daring, hollow sound of her earlier work did, but Timbre’s trademark still shines through thanks to her singular ear for composition.
The Night half of the record is the less approachable one for the same reasons that is also the the more diverse; the track lengths vary between four and sixteen minutes, among them some purely instrumental pieces and also some purely choral pieces. Timbre’s treatment of a choir is strongly influenced by Eric Whitacre, a contemporary composer known (and sometimes hated) for his love of minor seconds. A minor second is a dissonant interval that, when sounded on a distorted electric guitar, creates a harsh sound that we affectionately know as “the skronk”. In the context of choral music, however, it generally serves to add a ghostly and otherwordly quality to any chord it inhabits. Listen for them in the tense climax that starts at 6:20 in “St. Cecelia: An Ode to Music”. This piece is the best misplaced Tim Burton soundtrack that Danny Elfman doesn’t have the aching heart to write.
Although it is a stupendous commitment by 2015 standards, listening to this double record through as a complete work rewards the listener with repeated motifs and a complex range of emotion. Timbre has moved from finding hope in the austere to finding pain in the magnificient, and in the process she has created a tremendously rich work that reminds us that adoration of the past mustn’t be dogmatic to be genuine, nor must it be regressive when applied to modern forms of expression.