Ramona Lisa - Arcadia
Released April 15, 2014
By Joe Gibson
The title has a cryptic, ancient, appeal. Arcadia is the name of a pastoral utopia in ancient Greece. It is also the name of a Duran Duran side project. Both of these references fit well with Ramona Lisa's (aka Caroline Polachek's) first solo release.
On the first and titular song, the listener (at least one who is prepare for a fluffy slice of whimsy served with their music) is lead, childlike, into Polachek's world. First we hear bells ringing through a fog of atmosphere. Then come the string-like MIDI sounds (the album uses MIDI samples only). The atmosphere that is established in the first few seconds of the album immediately brings to mind the cover photo (e.g. gothic mansion, young woman dancing (presumably) referencing both the power of the romantic period and the sleek coolness and spontaneity of the French New Wave movement). Arcadia gives the listener a touch of cool-gothic before descending into a pastoral auto-"folk"-tune that sounds like something you might here on a 16 bit video game. It is a charming mix of the old (song style, imagery) and the new (vocals, arrangement). The next song Backwards and Upwards manages to continue the established theme, while incorporating the familiar icy dance sound of Chairlift, Caroline Polachek's better known musical project. To summarize the experience of listening to Arcadia, one might describe it as being something like listening to a great Kate Bush album that has been filtered through a bipping and bleeping computer, then drenched to a bitter cold by a rainy day. Atmosphere aside, the album is undeniably inventive musically. Polachek manages to deftly incorporate quite a few influences into a cohesive and seductive sound (check out the synth solo outro on the previously mentioned Backwards and Upwards. That one piece of wobbly pitch bending manages to evoke the most nostalgic moments of the 80's (think John Hughes 80's) and, at the same time, the improvised flare of jazz, or jazz fusion (think Return to Forever).
Make no mistake, however much she indulges in interesting MIDI instrumentation, Polachek's voice is the main feature on this release (recorded directly through a laptop microphone). She is the reason you are listening after all. If you are fan of Chairlift's sound, Arcadia will be a pleasant detour through a digital gothic mansion and its surrounding gardens while you wait for Chairlift's next release. For those not willing to enter Polachek's world, the album might seem to blow away like fairy dust in the wind, leaving little to be remembered. On the other hand, for those entranced by Polachek's vision, Arcadia might even prove, or reaffirm, that the main reason you listened to Chairlift in the first place was her. This album is ultimately the sound of a singer/songwriter/musician developing their sound into a more personal statement.
Wherever she or Ramona Lisa venture, I will surely follow.