Chantal Acda: The Sparkle In Our Flaws
On her 2013 album Let Your Hands Be My Guide, Chantal Acda seemed to break through to an deeper level of personal expression than she had in her previous work, as impressive collectively as it is. Without wishing to take away anything from the accomplishments of the Dutch-born and Belgium-based songwriter, the exceptional quality of the album's performances and arrangements had to be accounted for in part by the involvement of Peter Broderick and Shahzad Ismaily on the project. In light of its artistic success, Acda understandably re-enlisted the two for The Sparkle in Our Flaws, an exceptional follow-up that also includes contributions from Valgeir Sigurdsson, Heather Woods Broderick, Niels Van Heertum, and Eric Thielemans (the album title, by the way, derives in part from The Sparkle Studio in Pacific City, Oregon where the recordings occurred).
There's an aching vulnerability to these songs that makes them extremely moving, and certainly Acda's tremulous vocal delivery amplifies the music's fragile character. The emotions are right at the surface of these songs, it seems, so much so that even the softest expression reverberates powerfully. In similar manner, her lyrics, while clearly rooted in personal experience, refrain from literal reportage, opting instead for poetic allusion. Put simply, the words clearly relate to dramatic life experiences she's had yet are rendered in a somewhat indirect form that lends them amenable to a variety of interpretations.
The slow-building “Homes” provides a perfect introduction to this tonally rich album. Metronomic guitar and synthesizer patterns nudge the music along, offering solid support to a quietly transcendent chorus that Acda and Broderick voice together. As delicate as the song is, it eventually turns triumphant in its closing minutes when a wordless choir chants alongside the rousing, strings-heavy backdrop. If anything, “Everything and Everyone” not only perpetuates the enchantment but even deepens it in a majestic setting that again augments her singing with strings (played by Broderick, presumably) and hand percussion. Not all of the album is so ethereal, with “Games” rooting itself in folk-rock and drums and electric guitars colouring the arrangement, and banjo adding to the heartfelt allure of “The Other Way.” Though any of the eight songs could be cited as illustrative of Acda's artistry, the latter's as fine a choice as any, especially when vocal lines such as “We danced till this day / And tried to look the other way” are delivered so stirringly.Her musical art is subtle, so much so that a number of listenings are needed for the nuances of the album to come into focus. Understatement is paramount, and vocal embellishments and solo spotlights are largely eschewed (a brief violin spotlight in the gorgeous closer “Still We Guess” stands out even more for being so rare); instead, texture is key, whether it be the quivering murmur of her voice or the violin playing that bolsters the songs' impact so wonderfully. The musicians demonstrate immense care in never overpowering her voice whilst still providing sensitive, complementary support. Verse-and-chorus structures are present, but the songs are presented in such a way that their dream-like character is accentuated, and The Sparkle in Our Flaws grows all the more transporting as a result. If no one song here quite matches the stately magnificence of the previous album's “Arms Up High” (though a great many come close), the eight ravishing songs on its successor leave an equally strong cumulative impression.