Review: Maarion Elsz – Chasing Rainbows

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Putting yourself out there can be a polarizing experience.

I used to sporadically research the work of Joanna Newsom, and this was the fundamental observation. When the unfortunate subjects of this research (i.e. my more unsuspecting friends), were made to sit through “Peach, Plum, Pear”, half of them unfurled in a gag reflex so immediate and overwhelming. The other half however, professed that it was the most disarming musical experience of their lives.

Maarion Elsz is a Sri Lankan singer-songwriter with folk music roots and a certain worldly zest. But there is no direct link to the backstory above: her voice is not as restlessly peculiar as Newsom’s, nor are her lyrics as densely narrative. Instead, Maarion’s word sound exist somewhere calmer, closer to a precious paddling of an indie favourite like Mirah. What warrants the original comparison however, is a certain freewheeling spirit—and a foreboding sense of drama—that underscore her work on her debut EP. Then there’s the harp.

But “solitary vocals, wind chimes, synths, big bass and ecstatic clapping” (from her bandcamp) could begin to describe so many of the aspiring singer-songwriters out there. So what elevates a budding songstress from an also-ran to that Lhasa de Sela sphere? That’s a hefty question, and it’s unjust to expect Chasing Rainbows to answer it fully. But in the spirit of candour, let’s see how far it does, anyway.

The arrangements here are twee and spare, but full-formed; “Oceanglow” sounds as lucid and liquid as its title. Her voice, which has that trained but almost-breaking quality to it, ebbs and flows to cast the lyrics in tenser and nuanced light—in contrast to how they lay on the page. The album artwork is meticulous and considered, the vivid colours of its ink still damp on paper. The strings on “Seafarers” grind and twerk like two tender beasts making love, or an intoxicated outtake from John Roberts’ vintage Glass Eights. It’s a track that again highlights Isaac Smith’s weighty and alive double bass work here and Isuru Kumarasinghe’s work on an assortment of instruments.

And just maybe, ‘budding’ and ‘aspiring’ are the wrong words to use, as Maarion seems to operate in a distinctly self-assured plain—a world of her own. Written and produced by herself, recorded by Isuru Kumarasinghe and mastered by seasoned hands, the music here offers rich, passaged hallways for trained ears to explore: “Stone and the Tree” feels fleeting and earthly at the same time. “These Days” (her debut single) stands out, its stabs of double bass digging deep, setting anchor. And her restive voice, caught in a cascading tapestry of strings and soft claps, sounds wiser than her years, evoking a young Nina Nastasia along the way.

It may be early days yet. But colour us polarized, positively.

Written by Roland Porter
Video shot and cut by Rehan Mudannayake

NEWS - 14. February 2013   CITY - Colombo ARTIST - Maarion Elsz

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