Birds Of Passage: Winter Lady
Denovali Records

Winter Lady, Alicia Merz's sophomore release under the Birds Of Passage name, captivates with seven forlorn invocations and chants that haunt the listener long after the recording's over. The forty-seven-minute collection, which follows quickly after Dear and Unfamiliar, the New Zealand vocalist's collaboration with Leonardo Rosado, is melancholy in the best sense of the word. Words such as ambient and minimalism might come to mind while listening to the album, but its songs, subtly sprinkled as they are with electronics and field recordings, are closer in spirit to vocal-based meditations than anything conventionally pop-related. Though the album title conveys an image of remoteness and frigidity, the songstress's incantatory dirges are distinguished by their powerfully intimate and vulnerable qualities.

“Fatal Melody” enters on a droning wave of ice-cold atmospherics and hazy piano figures before Birds Of Passage's defining element, Merz's hushed murmur, enters to immediately impose an entrancing stillness upon the material. As strong as it is, that promising opener is bettered by the deeply potent settings that follow. After a simple piano pattern establishes a lulling base, “Highwaymen in Midnight Masks” sets sail in seeming slow motion, with the haunting vocal melody delivered so softly it feels like she's whispering into the listener's ear as a calming intoxicant. The sound design expands gradually as the song progresses, with reverberant bell tones deepening the air of mystery and enchantment cultivated by the vocal melody and instrumental surround. “Hollow” pushes the intimacy aspect even further in accentuating her whisper even more prominently in the mix and de-emphasizing the backdrop that shimmers and glistens alongside it.

All of the material is composed and performed by Merz with one exception, “Away With the Night,” a strings-heavy meditation that Mathias van Eecloo (Monlyth & Cobalt) contributed to the recording. It could just as easily be mistaken for a Merz production, however, given how indelibly it becomes a Birds Of Passage piece when the vocals appear. As powerful as “Highwaymen in Midnight Masks” is, it's equalled by the ten-minute closer “Waltz While We Sleep,” which, abetted by the lilt of its 3/4 time and a timeless vocal melody, becomes a prolonged exercise in heartbreak of the most stirring kind. Like so much of Winter Lady, the beautiful and sparsely arranged setting unfolds with a gracefulness and quiet assurance that makes Merz's electronic-folk music seem all the more special. Dramatic without being pretentious and overwrought, her magical songs act upon the soul like poetry at its most evocative.

January 2012