Sometimes an artist just needs to step back and take stock. Lauren Hoffman hasn't been heard from on record in seven years, and it's been nearly a decade since her sparkling debut, Megiddo, languished in Virgin Records purgatory, leading Hoffman to pull the plug on her major-label deal. All of which makes Choreography an all the more pleasant surprise. Returning to the dark, swirling atmospherics of her debut, the moody and gorgeous Choreography ups the ante with layers of textured production, sampling a potpourri of styles and handling them all with equal aplomb. The sum of her influences and much more, Hoffman apprenticed in fellow Virginian Shannon Worrell's underappreciated September 67 project (which Hoffman briefly joined), worked with Cracker's David Lowery (who produced her first EP and plays bass on Choreography's "Solipsist"), and took inspiration from the late Jeff Buckley, whose gut-wrenching honesty had a profound effect on her. Based on songwriting chops alone, Choreography merits favorable comparison with Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, but it also calls to mind the overlooked chanteuse Eleni Mandell. Instead, Hoffman has to go to France to get a record deal. The slinky disc-opener, "Broken," should by all rights be a huge radio hit. On top of a sensuous, vaguely sinister beat, keyboard washes, synth bleats, and atmospheric guitar lines from Timo Ellis (Cibo Matto), Hoffman's opening couplet -- "You're a little bit damaged/I'm a sucker for that" -- carries the freighted promise of intimate confession, which the rest of the record delivers over and over. "As the Stars" is all sultry come-on and languid, by-the-fire lovers' fare wrapped in a soulful, baritone guitar-driven country shuffle with soaring choruses. Both songs recall some of the moody aura of Trampoline-era Joe Henry. "Another Song About the Darkness" begins in quiet, forlorn resignation until the pump organ played by Alan Weatherhead (Sparklehorse) eventually pushes the song into an up-tempo crescendo. "Ghost You Know" is stately Mann, strings and piano elevating the chorus and bridge to elegiac heights, and "Out of the Sky, into the Sea" is a waltz with a calliope feel built on the back of Chris Lancaster's sublime cello work. Only slightly less effective are the two more straightforward rockers that feature a retro-'80s feel, "White Sheets" and "Hiding in Plain Sight." Both are executed well, but for all their nervous energy and angst, they don't quite scale the emotional heights of Choreography's more textured fare. But that's just splitting critical hairs. John D'earth's lonely flügelhorn frames disc-ender "Joshua," where Hoffman lists the many things that love is not and in the process of elimination suggests what true love's really all about. Choreography may concern itself with the hard lessons learned from the dance of love, but it's also about an artist reaching an impressive musical maturity.
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AllMusic Review by John Schacht