Chantal Acda: Bounce Back
Glitterhouse Records

On Bounce Back, Chantal Acda changes things up dramatically from her previous two albums, 2013's solo debut Let Your Hands Be My Guide and 2015's follow-up The Sparkle In Our Flaws. Both of those stellar outings were polished affairs on which the songstress worked with Peter Broderick; largely produced by Phill Brown, the new release exudes a stronger live feel by comparison, as if the performances laid down by her and the musicians were in-studio live takes. The results aren't unpolished, but they do exude the kind of vitality one associates with first takes, and they're also thankfully free of post-production fine-tuning that can, in the wrong hands, drain life from a recording.

The production approach is consistent with Acda's primary goals for the project: in an era of ‘fake news,' she wanted more than ever to communicate honestly and directly with listeners; through the album's nine songs, she also wanted to share her hope that the divisiveness currently poisoning relations between people and cultures might be overcome by deeper connections and understanding, that beyond surface differences we might recognize our shared humanity. In Acda's own words, Bounce Back is her “ode to connection, contact, and consciousness.” Her solo material has always felt intimate; the new album amplifies that dimension even more.

The musicians she's surrounded herself with have never been better. Multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily plays synthesizer, guitar, bass, drums, and percussion, and Gaetan Vandewoude and Bill Frisell contribute guitar. On a number of songs, horn textures surface courtesy of flugelhorn players Niels Van Heertum and Gerd Van Mulders, while violin and bouzouki appear thanks to Mathijs Bertel and Frederic Lyenn Jacques, respectively. Bassist Alan Gevaert and drummer Eric Thielemans provide a solid foundation throughout, and the leader augments her tremulous vocal delivery with acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and piano.

Though the instrumental surround might be somewhat different from before, Acda's voice and songwriting largely continue the tone and style of the earlier albums. Emblematic of the singer-songwriter tradition, verses and choruses adhere to the classic format. Typically a brief instrumental intro establishes the song's character, after which her voice enters, its familiar ache firmly in place; the album's rich in affecting melodies, with the chorus often elevating the song's impact (the title track and “Our Memories,” to cite two examples). Complementing the emotional vulnerability of the material are arrangements of equivalent rawness; guitars smolder during “Notice,” for example, in a way that matches the uncertainty and confusion expressed by the lyrics, and much the same occurs when waves of guitar distortion crest through “I Need You To Go.”

The musicians collectively back Acda's singing with dense, textural support. The flugelhorns add an appealing dimension: the way Van Heertum and Van Mulders pair with guitar on the opening “Fight Back” is striking, and the horn lines lift the already rousing “Our Memories” further. In a rather surprising move, Frisell largely blends into the ensemble. The strategy doesn't prove unsatisfying, though one side of me does wish his distinctive voice had been more prominently featured. Don't get the wrong impression: his playing is audible, as shown by the lovely shadings he adds alongside Acda's vocal in “Endless” and “These Terms”; it's just not as conspicuous as one might have anticipated. Let's not forget, however, that Bounce Back is, after all, her show, no matter how generously she shares the spotlight with her collaborators, and a fine show it is.

December 2017