Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton / Emily Haines

Choir of the Mind

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It may have taken over ten years for Emily Haines to release her second solo album, Choir of the Mind, but she was very busy the whole time with Metric, a wealth of collaborations, and guest appearances with Broken Social Scene among others. With a schedule as busy as hers, it was lucky that she had time to do anything, much less write and record an album. Working in Metric's studio with her bandmate James Shaw and utilizing a piano from the 1850s on many tracks, Haines takes a more intimate route than her band usually does. Many of the songs are stripped down to one or two instruments and Haines' vocals; some have a more arranged sound but still feel aimed directly at the listener alone, not at a mid-sized arena full of fans. No matter the setting, Haines shines like a glittering gem on a sunny day. Her vocals have enough understated power and graceful beauty that she could basically sing anything and it would sound lovely; instead, her songcraft lifts the album into rarified air. The centerpieces are epic ballads with a subdued cinematic sweep and an expansive feel. "Legend of the Wild Horse" has an insistent undercurrent of drama, some brilliant vocal multi-tracking, and a melody that's as sharp as a burr under a saddle. "Fatal Gift" has the album's fullest arrangement, utilizing skittering drum machines, squiggly basses, echoing guitar lines, and a choir of Emilys to drive home the song's bitter message, and the title track, which is restrained musically but features a long spoken word section that calls to mind the work of her father Paul, a poet who worked with Carla Bley. The rest of the album features similarly structured ballads with the same atmospheric and wistful approach. Listening to the record from beginning to end is like sharing a cozy couch with Haines for an hour, with the blankets pulled up and a warm beverage nearby, occasionally gazing out the window at the world, but mostly with an inward focused gaze that's more comforting than penetrating. Even when the songs feel ripped from her deepest, saddest recesses, like the chilling "Nihilist Abyss," the album never feels dark. It inspires reflection and melancholy, not tears. The album is called Choir of the Mind, not Choir of the Heart, after all. It may take Haines another ten years to make her third solo album, but hopefully when she does it will be as richly melodic, subtly dynamic, and emotionally powerful as this one is.

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