REBEKAH HIGGS – Odd Fellowship

Five years in the making, 2011’s ‘Odd Fellowship’ is second solo release (third overall) from Nova Scotia songstress Rebekah Higgs.  Produced by Brian Dreck – best known for production duties with Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine – the record manages to sound full and shiny in places, while remaining relatively clanky and sparse in others.  This range of sounds consistently provides Higgs with a good base from which to weave her sometimes odd, but often strangely compelling vocal melodies.

The guitar driven indie pop of ‘Drunk Love’ provides the best entry point into this second album, as Higgs’s slightly lazy voice sounds fabulous against fuzzy guitars and an almost marching beat.  Ringing lead guitars provide an excellent counterpoint against the bottom end, resulting in something guaranteed to thrill those who love music of an alternative 90s persuasion – Belly, in particular.  Similarly accessible, ‘Youth & Beauty’ is loaded with a pumping bass and almost danceable groove.  That provides enough brilliance to ensure it’s a track which works well enough, but once that’s topped by guitar – introcate on the verses, fuzzy on the chorus – the tune elevates to a new level.  A great example of alternative pop/rock, this track could best be described as a cast off from Rilo Kiley’s ‘Under The Blacklight’ swansong, and as such, it’s easy to see this appealing to fans of that much missed indie-pop outfit.

Elsewhere, things aren’t always so direct – or indeed hook driven – but the results are mostly interesting.   ‘Stick & Poke’ is home to a great example of Higgs’ quirky and occasionally mechanical stylings.  Her multi-tracked voice sounds endearing harmonising with itself; simple but effective, that voice is backed by programmed drums marking time and organ sounds for extra colour.   To avoid the track descending into absolute coldness, a live bass can be heard adding plenty of flair.  By the time the live drums make a belated appearance, the track gathers pace as it motors into the coda.   Here, the band adopts an all round fuller sound which quickens in pace, faster and faster, headlong into a chaotic climax. The repetition of vocals may endear or irritate depending on the listener, but for those heavily into alternative female fronted music, this could have plenty of charm.  The coda is, perhaps just a little too full on – overdone even – but in terms of something which takes the pop core of Dressy Bessy and then spruces that up with deliberate eccentricity, it’s all extremely well executed.

‘Lazy Morning’ brings a minimalist drone punctuated by piano notes.  By the time the chorus rolls around, things flesh out with string sounds and more percussion, pushing Higgs into a similar musical mood to Mirah (only more polished) with a nod to Amanda Palmer (but far less scary).  Higgs’s vocal is hushed – an approach which suits the partly orchestrated musical backdrop. At just over two minutes, it’s brief but doesn’t feel as if it needs to be any longer; no does Higgs sound like an artist attempting to be deliberately out-there.  For its quirks, the end results sound surprisingly natural, providing another decent example of this particular artist’s more experimental side. The electronic ‘Shoop’, on the other hand, could be accused of pushing experimentation too far.  Bleeping keyboards and disjointed rhythms are very much the order of the day.  Lacking anything resembling a likable tune, Higgs’s voice is sampled and looped, repeating the word ‘shoop’ as a vocal punctuation for what feels like forever.  By the time the main part of the song appears, her vocal is in French and sounds almost unfriendly against the jagged and ugly backdrop.  Higgs gets full marks for trying something different but it really, really spoils the flow of the album.

Without question, one of the album’s most endearing tracks is ‘Little Voice’.  Featuring a great, waltzing arrangement led by a stabbed piano, the number teases the listener in an almost carny style (reminiscent of bands on the fringes of the “dark cabaret” movement).  In an almost perfect accompaniment, Higgs’s lead voice commands a presence while remaining slightly whimsical throughout.  Tinking percussion adds plenty of musical accenting throughout, but it’s the wordless backing voices which are sure to leave the strongest lasting impression, heavily filtered to sound like theramins.  There’s not much of a chorus, but the lolloping arrangement carries the piece more than well enough, and it’s the music which feels the most important here.   Perhaps even better still, the pop-edged ‘Gosh, Darn, Damn’ is a slightly sugary piece rooted by a very strong bassline which hints at old soul tunes.  Across nearly four minutes, Higgs’ stylised vocal performance may not appeal to everyone, but she sounds very comfortable.  The main hook is one designed to be infectious, and while the chorus is relatively successful in its quest to stick in your head, it’s the wordless refrain combining vocal and brass which follows providing the most instant gratification.

It’s fair to say that as good as it is, parts of ‘Odd Fellows’ aren’t always designed for mass appeal, but it’s the deliberate contrast between the slightly experimental (‘Stick & Poke’) and the instantly likable (‘Gosh, Darn, Damn’) which gives it strength. As such, those who like things with an interesting female voice should find themselves almost instantly attracted to most of Higgs’s work.  It’s probably not everyday listening for all, but there are enough interesting ideas lurking within to warrant returning to the album on a regular basis.

Purchasing mp3s of ‘Gosh, Darn, Damn’ and ‘Youth & Beauty’ are strongly advised.

January 2012