Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Kiwi takes flight - Brooke Fraser

Sometime early last year I first heard the music of Brooke Fraser. This New Zealand-born singer might generally be categorized as a "Christian folk" artist.

Okay, okay, I know. You're either saying, "Right on!" or "Harumph!" (Seriously. Even if you're not actually saying "harumph", I know you're at least thinking some modern-day equivalent. Maybe even "EWwwww-WUH!")

Trust me, Brooke Fraser is redefining "crossover".

Now, there are lots and lots of "Christian rock" or "Christian folk" clone artists, mostly cranked out by the giant cash factory known as Word Records. For the unexposed, they've long been like a born-again version of Motown records... except the concept of "soul" is a little different. Most of these artists go straight for the left ventricle, slide in a tube, and fill it up with highly-refined sugar. Or -- if they're a "Christian metal" band -- they stick a fork into your heart muscle, twist it and then say "Sorry. I need some grace now."

But Ms. Fraser has benefited from the buffer of the International Date Line. Coming up in Wellington as a musical prodigy and an independent artist, she signed with SonyBMG in Australia/NZ, in 2002, at the age of 18.

This young woman has one of the finest vocal instruments I've heard in a long time. Her voice is sweet but never saccharine, warm but touched by the salt of the earth. She can wrap you up in a blanket of reassurance, and while you're there, snugly listening, she'll deliver her payload of soul-searching, intelligent, conscientious world view.

But it's not subterfuge, it's not self-righteous, and it's no head fake. Apparently, she really means every word. And without an abundance of the sort of repetitious, opaque tracks you get from some artists in the genre. Her touch is generally light both musically and evangelically, so even the most jaded of harumphers may enjoy all but the most hymnal of her tracks in spite of themselves.

There's just one thing that bugs me. This girl who has such an amazing instrument... has pierced her tongue. Look, I'm all for freedom of expression and stuff. But when I'm listening on decent speakers, I'm clearly hearing the sound of a self-imposed speech impediment. Each and every S and TH is just a bit diffused by the metal stud that pokes up between her taste buds. For me, it can be more than a little distracting. C'mon, Brooke-- why pollute this gift you've been given?

But, finger-wagging aside, her voice and music tend to overcome this shortfall (especially if I listen on small speakers or earbuds). Her lyrics and music videos show that she has a larger, better world in mind as she's writing, from her heartfelt commitment inspired by a trip to Rwanda -- "Albertine" -- to intimate but soaring tracks like "Deciphering Me". I highly recommend "Shadowfeet"... especially the video. Check it out on YouTube. As with Deciphering, the chorus rises in a gently anthemic arc that floats you down the stream of her consciousness. The video uses a tried-but-true technique: a series of close-ups of various people singing the song. This grey-day execution, populated by the diversity of humanity and combined with a comforting but melancholy hook, really works for me. In a throat-lumping kinda way.

Brooke isn't just a crossover or breakthrough artist; she's managed to obliterate the line, plowing into the mainstream with 13x platinum sales in her corner of the world, and with the US release of "Albertine", she's hit the Top 10 on iTunes. I'd say she's likely to blow up in the US any day now.

So for those of you who occasionally venture into the world of "Christian crossover", and even for those of you who appreciate global thought but who usually eschew the divine, Brooke Fraser could be a welcome voice.

Now, I don't think Wood & Bone Records (her new U.S. label) is owned by the Word Records conglomerate, but you never know. So, Brooke, be on the lookout for some A&R guy driving a tanker full of sugar.

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