Silje Nes: Opticks
Silje Nes, who grew up in the tiny town of Leikanger, in Sognefjord, Norway, home-recorded her follow-up to the 2008 debut album Ames Room in Berlin over an eighteen-month time period. She initially adopted a more random and spontaneous modus operandi when she started making music in 2001 using four-track demo software and laptop for gear. Enticed by the many possible directions that could be pursued, she used whatever materials she had at hand (guitars, synth, cello, drum kit, laptop, loop pedals) in constructing her vignettes and gradually her singing worked its way into the mix too. Opticks (the title a reference to Isaac Newton's 1704 book) finds her bringing a tighter focus to songs that are more structured, melodic, and richer in instrumental detail than those on the previous album. As the new material again features vocals, guitars, and drums but also viola, bass, xylophone, electronics, keyboards, concertina, flute, trumpet, and percussion, rich webs of sound result in songs that rarely extend beyond a four-minute duration.
On songs like “Symmetry of Empty Space” and “Levitation,” her gentle and clear-eyed voice occasionally calls to mind Julee Cruise's, whereas in a few other places one is reminded of Hope Sandoval. Nes's singing and the instrumental settings that she embeds it within are relatively restrained, sometimes so much so that Opticks would make an ideal selection as lullaby music perfect for sending infants off to sleep. Which is not to suggest that there isn't occasional contrast, as shown by “The Grass Harp,” for instance, which kicks up some dust with galloping drum beats and electric guitars before returning to Nes's comfort zone where breathy vocals share the stage with viola and glockenspiel. But generally speaking the album focuses on dreamy folk-pop of the kind heard in “The Card House,” “Crystals,” and the swooning folk shuffle “Branches.”
Yes, her music is gently enchanting and its home-made character heightens the intimacy that her vocalizing already brings to the recording (especially when it's so front and center it feels like she's singing into one's ear) but the presence of a stronger emotional dimension would lend Nes's music more depth. As pretty as it is, her delivery is weakened by that fact that it seldoms strays from its fragile mode, and consequently there's not a lot of variety or dynamic contrast in the singing style. It's during the closing song, “Ruby Red,” that we catch a glimpse of how more affecting her music can be when its emotional potential is explored, even if the song's more powerful impact comes by way of the plaintive viola cry and less her vocalizing.