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Slean shines on eclectic new record

Matthew Solarski | Wednesday, October 27, 2004

When Sarah Slean graced the stage at Legends last fall, few had heard of this charismatic chanteuse from the north. Slean’s only U.S. release to date remains an out-of-print, seven-track EP compiling standout songs from her three previous Canadian records – yet more than a few were left dazzled and dizzy after her wondrous performance.Now Slean is back with the superb follow-up to 2002’s Canadian chart-topper “Night Bugs” and is poised to become an international household name. “Day One” showcases the multi-faceted Slean in top form. It glows with lush, ambitious arrangements, improved song-writing and melodies that lodge themselves in the listener’s head not unlike the best show tunes.Slean first gained notoriety with a haunting cover of a most unlikely Radiohead track, the chilling and perplexing “Climbing Up The Walls,” on her self-released debut EP “Universe.” Listeners charmed by “Universe” and Slean’s debut full-length “Blue Parade” snatched up copies of these records by the thousands – phenomenal sales by independent standards – and major labels took notice. Slean signed a deal with Warner in Canada and Atlantic in the United States. Although the latter fell through, the former provided Slean with the wherewithal to produce the lavish “Night Bugs” and tour extensively. “Night Bugs” entranced legions of new fans and even won Slean a Juno nomination (the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy nod), but only hinted at the talent exhibited on “Day One.”Interestingly, the first sound to emerge from “Day One” is not the expressive, Tori Amos-esque piano that dominates previous releases but rather a drumbeat followed by a brooding guitar. Then a line follows hardly typical of a songstress so keen on poetry and wonder: “A little blood and vomit on the car seat…” One is confronted with a songwriter who has shed much of the pristine sentimentality of her early work, opting instead to tackle the world’s darker truths with chutzpah and minor chords.The heavenly “California,” on which Slean recounts a short-lived romance with a resident of that other sunshine state, stands out as one of “Day One’s” crowning moments. It begins with a beat bearing a rather uncanny resemblance to that of Ludacris’s “Southern Hospitality,” but quickly sets off in a decidedly non-hip-hop direction with sparse, plaintive piano chords and sonorous vocals. “I know better,” laments Slean, “still I wish I was / by your side.” Another highlight, title-track “Day One” kicks off with an infectious piano melody, as well as some of Slean’s most enigmatic lines to date. “I’m spreading love like a terrorist now” coos the young torch singer, and it is anyone’s guess just what Slean means by this.Listeners that are patient enough to linger a half-minute beyond the ostensible closing track “Wake Up” are treated to the delightful “Somebody’s Arms,” a radio-worthy pop ditty that caps “Day One” on an upswing.Sarah Slean’s biography credits her as singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and artist and “Day One” resonates with Slean’s contributions in each of these realms. It is hardly surprising that the young muse is presently writing a full-length musical, set to debut sometime in 2005. The liner notes are adorned with Slean’s gorgeous renderings. In one, she conducts a sunrise while haggard-looking, winged creatures clamber amount on a knoll. In another she nonchalantly ambles away from a burning cabin, a bag of books close at hand. Others feature the mysterious persons and surreal places that populate Slean’s songs.Sarah Slean croons with a slight quaver, in a manner you might imagine a silent film star to sing. Her voice is a taste acquired with a bit of effort, and first-time listeners may not take to “Day One” until spin two or three. Those who take the effort, however, will delight in having found something new to love.