[Album Review] White Poppy- Natural Phenomena
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Release Date: June 23rd, 2015
Label: Not Not Fun Records

White Poppy (aka Crystal Dorval) writes, performs, records and produces her music herself. Granted, in this digital age of computers, programs and on-line tools this is hardly a rarity. Still, it is commendable given the complexity and richness of the sounds she comes up with. Furthermore, her latest effort, ‘Natural Phenomenon’, stands as evidence that she is simply getting better and better in all four areas (writing/performing/recording/producing).

One thing about this latest record is that Dorval sings less than on previous releases, by which I mean there are only two, maybe three, tracks that actually have lyrics (and even on these the singing is so distant and indistinct that the words are not discernible). Elsewhere there are some vocals (without words), but for the most part there are none. ‘Natural Phenomenon’ is, in essence, an instrumental album.

On the one hand, this is a shame because Dorval has a beautiful voice that can lend that angelic quality so favoured in the genre of dream pop. On the other hand, it underscores the fact that White Poppy isn’t really a dream pop artist at all – she is a painter of complex sonic landscapes, and vocals are merely another paint in her box. Vocals are not the subject matter — they are merely one of several tools used to create the subject matter. So, it isn’t a shame after all.

Although there are some elements of ambience in her music, most of her brush strokes are too broad and bold to fit that description. The songs are composed of intricate layers, and some of those layers may contain subtle, even gentle, sounds. However, there is a solid and purposeful rhythm at the core of each track, acting as an anchor to prevent any of the musical elements from being blown away in the wind. “Wild Mind”, for example, has a resounding percussive centre, around which guitars dance and swirl but never float away. Similarly, “Arctic Rose” has a rich and deep bass sound, which, along with some ‘clacking’ drums, forms the underpinning.

Dorval’s instrument of choice is the guitar, although her use of pedals, distortion and other processing can often make it difficult to recognize the sound produced as coming from a guitar. It does, however, make for a wide variety of textures and moods. On the standout track “Confusion” a jangly guitar plays high up in the rich and complex mix, providing a joyful and uplifting dimension. Echoing and overlapping guitar passages swirl around the tune in “Exotic Realms” creating a hypnotic, dizzying effect. A heavily distorted, near-metal, guitar introduces both the central melody and the rhythmic base to the song “Sublimity”.

Dorval is not blind to the dark facets of life and so shadows dance around the corners of ‘Natural Phenomenon’, reflective of emotions such as fear, regret and grief. She is, however, an optimist, and there is always a guitar (sometimes more than one) shining a hopeful light on affairs. It may not exactly be a spiritual experience (unless you choose it to be), but the emotional take-away is almost as satisfying as the musical one.