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Genuine Rice releases emotion-filled album

Analise Lipari | Monday, December 4, 2006

The 2003 film “Closer” introduced the mainstream American audience to bitter Irish balladeer Damien Rice through starkly lovely “The Blower’s Daughter” off of his first album, “O.” Three years later, Rice returns with “9,” an album that builds on his raw, musically intimate style in its beautiful – but flawed – 10 tracks.

Rice comes to music audiences in an age of male singer-songwriters who thrive on emotional rawness and the frustrations of love, albeit with a higher degree of cheer than Rice ever exhibits on “9” – but all the better for him. Unlike singers such as James Blunt, Rice seems inherently more genuine, as he aptly addresses the more difficult aspects of emotion and love. Frustrated, tired, desperate or even vitriolic, Rice succeeds in creating an overall feeling of bleak reality, with his voice and arrangements better serving his audience than a Top 40-bound ditty from someone like Blunt or John Mayer. Musically, Rice is more complex than his peers, and “9” reflects that effort and intelligence.

The album opens with the piano-centered “9 Crimes,” recently heard on the Nov. 23 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” “9 Crimes” features Rice’s faithful vocal accompanist, Lisa Hannigan, and the contrast between their voices elevates the hauntingly somber tones of the song to a higher level of beauty.

The lyrics, which set the tone thematically for the majority of “9,” decry love’s failings and frustrations. Lines such as the opening, “Leave me out with the waste/ This is not what I do/ It’s the wrong kind of place/ To be thinking of you,” immediately engender feelings of bitterness – feelings that the Rice of each song is unable (or unwilling) to move beyond.

“The words, while hardly ham-fisted, are in the same passive-aggressive heartsick mode that Rice can’t seem to shake,” Noel Murray said in a recent review with online publication The Onion’s A.V. Club.

The stagnancy of that bitterness, then, is one of the main issues with “9.” Several tracks devolve into somewhat excessive explorations of Rice’s being the wronged (or wronging) lover in his relationships.

In particular, “Rootless Tree,” with its expletive-heavy chorus, is an exercise in Rice’s frustration that reaches a plateau of near annoyance. Listeners can accept a lot when it comes to an artist’s anger and unhappiness, but the chorus’s repetitive nature is altogether unsettling, and in a way that detracts from Rice’s aesthetic of lovelorn sullenness.

“Me, My Yoke and I” functions in the same way. Normally, the raw quality of Rice’s voice adds to the overall effect of his music. With this song in particular, the formerly deliciously desperate vocals become unnecessary whining.

Rice characteristically expresses himself throughout “9” with both whispers and yawps, as heard in particular in “Dogs,” the album’s fifth track. “Dogs” exemplifies Rice’s ability to create an uncommon intimacy with his listeners, and the closeness of his feelings and expressions benefit “9” as a whole.

Other strengths of the album include “Coconut Skins,” with its wryly dirty lyrics and welcome acoustic guitar, and “Grey Room,” which returns triumphantly to Rice’s earlier musings on love’s disappointments. These two tracks depart musically from others like “Me, My Yoke and I” and use Rice’s talents to emphasize his overall themes. “Accidental Babies” is also a highlight, with its seemingly asinine series of questions that ultimately create a sense of loss and longing.

“9” is an album ridden with its own troubles. But its strengths, which stem from the appeal of Rice’s raw earnestness, override its frustrating weaknesses. By the peacefully lengthy final track, “Sleep Don’t Weep,” Rice has drawn in his willing listeners with intoxicating tales of bitter loss, and with that, he succeeds.