By the time her music arrived stateside in 2008, Brooke Fraser was already a popular artist in her homeland of New Zealand, and for good reason. Following her work with Hillsong and a successful solo debut, her sophomore record Albertine was a stunning introduction to the rest of the world, a rare blend of poetic lyrics, musical artistry, and a beautiful voice that earned well-deserved critical acclaim. With such a high standard already set, her third release, Flags, comes with great anticipation, and fortunately, it does not disappoint. Flags is another stellar work that follows the precedent set by her first releases while evolving her music in new directions.
While Albertine was a somber, sometimes dark collection of reflective, personal songs, Flags takes her songs into new territory, and the change is evident from the very first track. "Something in the Water" is a catchy pop song with a touch of playful folksy elements. The bright acoustic guitar, hand claps and whistling, and hummable chorus wrap sweet lyrics in a playful melody that beckons the listener to sing along. It's hard not to smile at an opening line like "I wear a demeanor made of bright, pretty things," and it only gets better from there.
One of Fraser's greatest strengths is keeping her music artistic but accessible, without resorting to cliches or turning pretentious. Flags takes her sound another step forward in richly layered, well-produced arrangements that draw from a variety of stylistic influences. There's the vivacious pop of "Something in the Water" and "Coachella," a nod to the Beatles in "Here's to You," and the tender piano-based duet "Who Are We Fooling?" "Sailboats" echoes Albertine's mellower style and works perfectly as an interlude between two dramatically different tracks, the carefree summery rhythms of "Jack Kerouac" and the thundering epic "Crows and Locusts." And in the midst of all these different pieces is her voice, sometimes soaring, other times dropping to a whisper, the common thread that weaves her diverse musical stylings into a cohesive tapestry.
Unlike the more autobiographical style of Albertine, Flags often approaches the lyrics as a storyteller, using characters and vivid settings to communicate ideas. "Betty," co-written with Jon Foreman, speaks to hidden secrets and pain through the story of a girl with a Canada-shaped birthmark and "a fool-proof plan for a lonely life." And while this song speaks of isolation, "Coachella" contrasts with joyous imagery of a crowd of strangers at a music festival: "We are standing on the shore in the smoke and the starlight / On the edge of a human sea... We are daughters, sons, brothers and sisters tonight at Coachella." Every song is a unique gem of its own, but perhaps the height of this record's power comes with "Crows and Locusts," a track full of apocalyptic imagery that builds to a piano-backed electric guitar climax and fades into a haunting chorus of "Nothing But the Blood." The darkness is shot through with hope ("Gotta feeling that there's rain in the oil-black sky / Gonna chase away the devil when the sun does rise / Gonna plead the blood..."), a hope that is revisited in the closer, "Flags." ("I don't know why the innocent fall / Why the monsters stand... But I know the last shall be first.)
Flags is a stunning effort from start to finish, once again proving Brooke Fraser's versatility as writer and musician, and it's a worthy addition to an impressive career. The songs are infectious, meaningful, and reveal something new and beautiful with every listen. The result is a near flawless alternative pop record and one of the best releases of 2010.
- Review date: 10/11/10, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com