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About three years ago, I branded Chantal Kreviazuk's album 'What If It All Means Something' as a record which offered listeners both outstanding and abysmal tracks in equal measure; the Canadian-born, classically trained pianist's third album lacked an identity, meaning that she did not stand out as a pop artist.
However, by the time of 2006's 'Ghost Stories', it was apparent that Chantal had really developed her own sound, veering towards the adult market rather than the generalised pop audience of her 2002 release. 'Ghost Stories', as you will learn, is a theatrical yet accomplished album; the twelve new tracks on the special edition version I own dip between melodrama and euphoria with wonderful ease and precision. As you will also discover, there are many aspects of the album that should not have worked: my previous reviews suggest that gospel choirs just aren't to my taste. Yet Chantal and her producer husband, Our Lady Peace's Raine Maida, managed to create an album which is nothing short of a sophisticated, modern classic and a record that I just can't stop listening to.
'WE WERE PLANNING OUR ESCAPE' (Lyrics from 'Ghosts of You')
The stressed, sober string instruments lure the listener into the album's opener, 'Ghosts of You', the very epitome of a heart wrenching ballad. The song was written about two significant figures from Chantal's past whom she wished she could backtrack time and spend just one more moment with. Kreviazuk's weapon of choice, the piano, and the percussion instruments march along in perfect harmony as her vocals become an amalgamation of emotions from soft and retrospective to raspy and regretful. In fact, it's the first time that the huskier depths of Chantal's voice have been revealed on one of her album recordings to my knowledge and I love the way her singing clashes with the very polished orchestral arrangement. Although it's not the jolliest of album openers, 'Ghosts of You' offers a simple story with elegant music and emotive vocals which makes for an ideal introduction.
The album's second track is the first of Chantal's songs I ever heard; as the album's first single 'All I Can Do' is a lot more uplifting than 'Ghosts of You' but still manages to portray a great message about not abandoning a loved one when they're in the middle of a crisis. The tune is mainly controlled by the mellower notes of the piano and gentler bells whilst the string instruments remain rather passive until the 2.45 minute mark. Although 'All I Can Do' is one of the breeziest songs on the album, the pedant in me would have liked the orchestral sections to be a little more prominent during the chorus; the mini-second between the third and fourth lines would have been the ideal opportunity for a moment of allegro but otherwise, the song's instruments are very well balanced and allow the words to shine effortlessly.
'Spoke In Tongues' is said to be a playful dig at Canada's resident 'punk rocker' Avril Lavigne who Chantal worked with in-between the release of 'What If It All Means Something' and 'Ghost Stories'. Apparently, the two ended their song-writing partnership on bad terms when Kreviazuk hinted that Avril wasn't really an accomplished songwriter in her own right and relied heavily on the ideas of others to help make her tracks listenable. What is really noticeable about track number three is the lyrics; they're feistier than anything Chantal has written before and the line 'you became such an opportunist/somewhat dim it's a bad combination' is one of the album's absolute best because of its hard-hitting, sarcastic uniqueness. The piano bubbles in the final chorus, after many occasions throughout the song, but explodes with the percussion as the track ends abruptly with just Chantal's voice. I love 'Spoke In Tongues', not only for the unexpected, quirky ending, but for the tune and the way the lyrics manage to suggest so many things about another person without coming across as overtly bitter.
'THE MIND IS POWERFUL, IT LOVES TO PLAY GAMES' (Lyrics from Mad About You)
The graceful string and bass guitar introduction of track number four always makes me think of the great romance novels by Austen and the Bronte's; the instrumentation during 'Mad About You' becomes the musical personification of the moments during those novels when two lovers encircle one another for the first time but are fearful of giving into temptation too soon. 'Mad About You' is a charming song about falling in love unexpectedly and Chantal's raspy vocals are magnificent as she contemplates the word love repeatedly as if she too is trying to determine exactly what it means to be in love. Besides the vocals, the pebbles plunging into water sound makes for a very striking tune but upon the first couple of listens, I was taken aback by the random bicycle bell during the concluding chorus; the bell sounded a little out of place and silly but the more I listen to the song, the more it seems to work, somehow. 'Mad About You' grows in confidence throughout its 3.46 minutes and is a refreshing, different direction after three very strong tracks.
'So Cold' opens with a dreary, domineering, organ-like keyboard before the murmuring guitar and Gospel Choir emerge with Chantal's light voice. 'So Cold's biggest accomplishment is easily the atmospheric formation of the melody which works well alongside the rather dark lyrics about how others in third world countries die needlessly every day. It didn't surprise me that 'Ghost Stories' contained a track chronicling such an eventuality; Our Lady Peace's album 'Healthy In Paranoid Times' was written and recorded about the same time and included a song called 'Leave The Light On'. In 2005, both Mr and Mrs Maida had ventured off to war-torn countries and became actively involved in charities for such causes. Throughout 'So Cold', Chantal's voice supports the groans of the bass guitar, setting the album's darkest tone so far before she steps in with the gospel choir at a different, more hopeful pitch. 'So Cold' is the album's shortest track but ideally so as it creates a precise ambiance within those two minutes and twenty seconds and as a listener, I got the impression that Chantal was putting her memories from those countries into musical form.
The album's seventh track begins with a strong piano sound, quiet bells and the drum's kick pedal as the lyrics discuss a person's need to find happiness and security within their everyday life. Although there are a few lyrical clichés within 'Waiting For The Sun', such as dark clouds having silver linings, somehow they don't leap out as being incredibly hackneyed and I think that's mainly down to the strong, chanting chorus Chantal has crafted about how even though the world is mad, it's important for a person to just live their life. The tune itself is more organic than anything else on the album thus far, sticking predominantly with drums, guitar and of course the piano, but it all works well together and results in an optimistic yet calming song. 'Waiting For The Sun' is one that I remembered the lyrics to very quickly and for that reason, it would have made an ideal single.
'You Blame Yourself' is of great contrast to its predecessor and the general tone of the song is a lot more pessimistic; Chantal dips into the deeper depths of her vocal range during the verses before offering a higher more operatic set of notes at the chorus which makes for a great juxtaposition. As well as this album being the one that most openly displays the raspier quality of her vocals, this is also the first time I've heard Chantal's voice hit such high notes and I think that in itself makes 'You Blame Yourself' a more notable track, particularly towards the end as the string instruments mount and mount with her vocals. Track number seven, like number five, is more of an atmospheric piece rather than one of the songs from this album that you would sing along to but is again a well put together, balanced piece that fits in well with the rest of the album.
'BUT YELLOW COVERS YOUR PHOTOGRAPH' (Lyrics from 'Grow Up So Fast')
Chantal stated during the making of this album that becoming a mother had greatly influenced her writing and this notion is very apparent throughout track number eight. Seemingly written from a child's perspective, 'Grow Up So Fast' delves into the thoughts of a child who's dumbfounded by age and their mother's fortieth birthday celebrations. What I truly love about 'Grow Up So Fast' is the way the main body of the song is centred around the piano, lyrics and Chantal's voice; whilst the other tracks display a confident blend of complex orchestral sounds, it was a pleasure to hear everything stripped back a little until the bridge during this song. 'Grow Up So Fast' is one of my favourites on the album because of the ambiguity of the lyrics too; although on the surface it seems like a loving address from child to mother, some of the lyrics suggest a strained relationship and I think the marriage of the two scenarios makes for a well put together, layered song which invites the listener to draw their own conclusions.
Another triumph of a track is 'Wonderful', the album's second single. Like the song beforehand, it's a pure master class in song writing; Chantal's narrator confesses during the verses to having many failings in life, such as the inability to fit into old jeans and tremulous mood swings. However, by the chorus, we learn that the narrator is someone who's capable of offering a partner unconditional love no matter what life happens to throw their way. Track number nine seems like a logical single; the piano is palatable but bold and makes for a soothing introduction and end to the song. 'Wonderful' is one of the songs that jumps out at you after only a few listens to the album and is a sweet track to just hum along to.
'Asylum', the album's original penultimate track, opens in a more sorrowful way with the piano in solitude and a rather sedate vocal performance by Chantal. Track number ten seems to be about the isolation of life: how as humans everything around us is so abundant and, as a result, becomes so tiresome. The instrumentation on this track seems to be lacking a monumental moment in spite of the twirling orchestral instruments at the bridge but this acts as a metaphor for the way life can invariable be tedious. 'Asylum' is perhaps the album's weakest offering as a result but by no means is it a bad song; to me, it does just lack the uniqueness that so many of the tracks on this album possess.
'TAKE ME TO YOUR WENDY HOUSE TO PLAY' (Lyrics from 'Wendy House')
The piano melody for 'Wendy House' seems a little too similar to that of 'Asylum' but the one key difference during the opening moments of the song is the way Chantal sings; her vocals seem exhausted which ties in well with the lyrics which discuss the way a life begins the second a child is born. I like the narrative of the song which discusses the way a grownup has to enter into a child's world in order to fully understand them. The music to 'Wendy House' is exquisite; the way the piano ruptures and re-gathers itself at the bridge before merging with the drums reminds me of the Dresden Dolls and a track from their self-titled debut called 'Gravity'; as a result, track number eleven sounds a lot more destructive than any of the other tracks on this album but in the most positive of ways.
Songs twelve and thirteen on 'Ghost Stories' are bonus tracks featuring on the special edition CD I own. The first of these 'Time' is a song from Chantal's previous album which has become one of her flagship tracks; it has featured in a couple of movies since 2002, including 'Uptown Girls'. In some ways, 'Time' seemed a perfect fit as a bonus single on this album because of its beautiful piano melody and dramatic orchestral moments but for somebody that already owns the song, it seems pointless to have it included again here. Lyrically, it's a song about contemplating whether a lover is worth taking the risk on and I think the pureness of her vocals suits the mood of the song well. However, to me, perhaps the most remarkable thing about 'Time' is the fact that it does fit in so effortlessly with the rest of 'Ghost Stories'; in hindsight, it's easy to detect the direction that Chantal's song writing was heading in prior to this record.
Concluding the album is 'I Do Believe' which is a blend of drums, keys and a synthesiser sound which reminds me of some of the lesser tracks from 'What If It All Means Something'. For some reason, Chantal adopts a brattish, nasal tone to her vocals for the first third of the song, as if she is reverting back to High School and, as a result, her singing only mildly fits the song's topic of maintaining faith during a challenging time. Lyrically, 'I Do Believe' is a strong song but the arrangement of the music just doesn't fit in with the rest of the album; up until now, the instrumentation had been very consistent and it's worth noting that this is the only track on the album not to be produced by Raine Maida but instead by a chap called Brian West. I do wonder if West truly understood the dynamic of the album Chantal and her husband created but then again, it could be Kreviazuk's fault for including this track on the special edition disk when it is so clearly different to everything else on the record. None-the-less, 'I Do Believe', as a song, seems as if it's just been tacked on the end of the album, which makes its conclusion a lot weaker than it would have been if the album had simply faded out with 'Wendy House'.
OVERALL: IT IS STILL EASY TO FALL IN LOVE WITH 'GHOST STORIES' BECAUSE...
In spite of my negativity towards the inclusion of 'Time' and 'I Do Believe', I want to just take a moment to concentrate on the non-bonus tracks on this album; songs one to eleven are incredibly thorough, consistent and in-keeping with one another. The album flows in a remarkable way and is a joy to listen to time and time again. I really adore the way Chantal tells each and every story; some of the topics she explores are tried and tested but others, such as going into a child's 'Wendy House' of imagination, are very distinctive. It's as if she's a character writing a memoir from childhood, resonating with old memories and reflecting on how she felt during some of the most testing moments of her life.
I would undoubtedly view the addition of 'Time' more favourably too if I didn't already own it; I know that for some people, 'Ghost Stories' will be the first of Kreviazuk's albums they own. Yet, tagging 'Time' in there seems to be a bit of a cop out and I would have much rather had a completely new song instead. Having said that, I'm not convinced that 'I Do Believe' deserved a spot on the album; it seems to be a song which Chantal has very much outgrown in comparison to the very mature and insightful tracks on this record. It's certainly not a bad song and I do enjoy listening to it from time to time, but it's a very poptastic number which just doesn't suit the rest of this album. Undoubtedly, if the song had appeared on 'What If It All Means Something', I would have perhaps viewed it in a more favourable light because of how it seems to fit in much better with many of the songs on there.
Chantal seems to have comfortably left behind the over-used synthesiser sounds of the early noughties which is why I said from the start that this album would perhaps appeal to an older market; I'm sure that everybody can identify with the themes and stories of the songs but whether some people would actually like the orchestral sounds is questionable. There is however a lot of variety throughout the album; although many tracks focus upon the orchestral instruments, some do not. Besides 'Asylum' and 'Wendy House', I really don't think that any two tracks sound the same on this album; that in itself is quite an accomplishment because the record is so consistent yet all of its tracks are so different.
I am not known for my extensive love of female vocalists or female-led bands. Yet, what has always struck me about Chantal is her ability to connect herself to a certain scenario or feeling and to really dig deep to uncover the truth and innermost delicate thoughts. 'Ghost Stories' is the strongest of her albums so far in my view for the pure fact that everything 'fits' together and sounds so remarkably polished. To compare her loosely to other female artists, the only two that really spring to mind are fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette for her vocal range and Annie Lennox for her ability to write about love and other topics which such meticulousness and perspective. Those are, frankly, only general associations but I hope they will give you a slight indication of Chantal's talents and convince you otherwise to give this album a listen.
Tracks: 13 (on the US Bonus Album)
Length: 50ish minutes
Genre: contemporary adult listening with influences from pop and rock.
Buy: amazon.co.uk for £11.46
Find out more about Chantal: www.chantalkreviazuk.com
(Please note: review previously posted on 'the other side' under the same user name).