Jeff Hanson's third album on Kill Rock Stars, his first since 2005's self-titled outing, is a welcome return from an underheralded artist, even if it differs only negligibly from its predecessors. As always -- for better or worse -- the most immediately striking feature of Madam Owl, at least for Hanson newcomers, is his unearthly singing voice: ethereal, gossamer, and yes, undeniably feminine. It's not simply that Hanson's falsetto is high, it's also impossibly delicate; tender but confidently solid; poignant without a hint of strain, with a resigned sweetness that recalls a certain (male) late, great labelmate. That resemblance, the other habitually noted aspect of Hanson's work, also applies to his songwriting and stylistic approach (not to mention this album's Portland provenance.) Madam Owl does little to discourage the reductive but apt (and inevitable) "female Elliott Smith" tag, although, continuing further in the instrumentally fleshed-out vein of Jeff Hanson, it has as much in common with the ambitious, classicist pop of Figure 8 and XO as the sparse, deft acoustic picking of Smith's earlier work. On the other hand, Hanson's music has always been polite in a way that Smith's is not -- less emotionally urgent, less rough around the edges -- and here it sounds positively urbane, with elegant chamber arrangements that give the album an understated Baroque quality, while still leaving plenty of space for his voice and folky guitar work to take center stage. The orchestration also helps to distinguish his otherwise often faceless songs, whose consistent prettiness and emotive but forgettable lyrics can render them somewhat interchangeable. There's nothing quite as catchy here as "This Time It Will," the surprise country-pop standout from his last album -- though "If Only I Knew" comes close, with its sprightly horn and banjo backups -- but the stately, subdued brass on "Nothing Would Matter at All," solemn, insistent strings on "Careful," solo flugelhorn flourishes on the driving "The Hills," and lush full-ensemble backing on the expansive opener "Night" help to create a more engaging listen overall. Meanwhile, the brief, lovely "Maryann" and the closing lament "This Friend of Mine" demonstrate that he can more than hold his own in a solo guitar-and-vocals setting. If the former happens to echo the phrasing of "No Name #1" from Elliott Smith's debut, while the latter's lyrics ("I lost this friend of mine so very young/his wishes we would carry out/but know one seemed to know about them") are nonspecific enough that they could conceivably have been written about Smith, it's nothing worth complaining about -- not when he can make evoking his influences sound this effortless and heavenly.
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AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman