A beat is laid out, hesitantly moving along at first, then careering, taking off; soon sepia-toned clouds of piano gather overhead, shimmering, turning darker and richer, and then Sóley raises her voice – a voice that, until five years ago, she didn’t even consider a proper “singing voice”. It’s true: the bespectacled multi-instrumentalist from Iceland, now in her mid-twenties, had been around the world and back with her band, Seabear, when she finally discovered her own vocal skills. Even though Sóley Stefánsdóttir sings non-stop in private, creating a musical backdrop to pretty much everything she does, it just took her a while to get used to the sound of her own voice. We all know this, don’t we?
It’s the sound of this voice that’s at the very core of her intricate compositions, tracks that flare like a bunch of magic lanterns, taking shape, growing hazy, flaming up once again, then moving on. Sóley sans Seabear – and the band’s mastermind Sindri was, after all, the first to go solo, as Sin Fang Bous, one should keep in mind – is basically a storyteller who has come up with her very own wonderland. Meet her on the street and she seems rather introverted; yet, she’s far from shy in this self-created musical sphere, a sonic realm she freely expands, stakes out, reinvents, turns upside down. Throughout the album, Sóley spins one yarn after the next; at one point, unfortunate “Smashed Birds” have to give their feathers for a new dress, while the guitar, making a special appearance, sets the tone. Elsewhere, she focuses on the moment when a dream is exposed as such, this time over a huge sonic expanse drowned in reverb. She moves gently over magic carpets, woven landscapes, majestic like movie scores (“Fight Them Soft,” which might as well be her mantra), only to serve the listener a plate of “Blue Leaves” next. Song after song, the former student of composition manages to combine seemingly disparate elements with stunning ease, a snap of her fingers, a click of the tongue, a carefree mood reminiscent of earlier projects hailing from Iceland. Not to mention the sound of the letter R when she sings, wobbling smoothly off the tip of the tongue, all straight at first, then branching off, 180 degrees, eventually hitting the home stretch – reflecting the shape of the letter itself.
After “Theater Island,” last year’s 6-track EP, Sóley returns with her first full-length, an album full of rhythmic makeshift creatures, of handclaps hidden in the undergrowth, tempting us to join in. The 13 tracks are sometimes incredibly catchy; amazingly quirky at other times: think cardigan-folk from the northern hemisphere, an ocean of stained glasses bopping up and down in the shared apartment’s dishwater, leeward in limbo. The result is refreshing in its lack of edginess; think Joanna Newsom minus her harp, or the Casady sisters circa 2004, but then clearly better trained, less crooked. In other words: her voice, those loops moving around like wooden toys, and finally the piano – that’s the backbone, the essence of her compositions; at least until some unexpected element appears elsewhere, a rhythmic creaking or the lack thereof, like a hidden Rube Goldberg machine, setting off yet another component, thus paving the way across the threshold and on into the next realm of sound. And thus we keep on sinking, deeper and deeper, until we stand on terra firma once again, realizing that somehow, next to us, above us, around us, a beat is laid out, hesitantly moving along at first, then careering…