Review: Dear Reader – Idealistic Animals
Published on January 12th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
The buzz: “A touching album about falling out with religion, based around the animal world!” 28 year-old Johannesburg singer/songwriter Cheri MacNeil, who for all intents and purposes is Dear Reader, elaborates further on the subject of her third album:
“Faith made me feel like I meant something, that I had a purpose and a role to play in a greater narrative. Everything that happened, happened for a reason. Now that I’ve lost that belief, everything seems aimless and chaotic, and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I feel like I’m at the mercy of completely random elements. The record is quite fatalistic, my worst fear being that life is completely meaningless and I have absolutely no control or power.”
An album about breaking up with religion, then, as well as breaking musical ties with Darryl Torr, previously the other member of Dear Reader. Barrel of laughs duly expected…
Sounds like: A total and unexpected bolt from the blue. Brooding without being overbearing, rousing without being ridiculous, soulful and emotional without oversimplifying or resorting to cliché, MacNeil has with Idealistic Animals announced herself as a considerable talent. Obviously, unfortunately, this means she is likely to pass largely unnoticed by a musical landscape that doesn’t care for such trivial notions as song-craft and thoughtful arrangements, but that’s a war to wage in another article.
The making of Idealistic Animals
By the time you’ve reached the percussive cacophony at the end of second track “MONKEY (You Can Go Home)”, you realise that MacNeil’s melodious touch could grace most any musical backdrop, while the ensuing country trot of “MOLE (Mole)” takes the kind of sudden key shift in its chorus that only the most natural songwriters can wield. A discordant fiddle is thrown into the mix, while a triumphantly parping horn section introduces itself as a key feature of an album that establishes song structures and moods near normally enough but is constantly on the move in terms of arrangements. This is a great example of how to take the well-worn phrase “never a dull moment” and make it your unquestioned bitch.
“EARTHWORM (All Hail Our Ailing Mother)” continues the underground movement with a shimmering, psychedelic trudge through furrows saturated with dreamy hooks, while “GIRAFFE (What’s Wrong With Us)” deploys a wispy, impish synth that reminds of The Shins’ last album; certainly, MacNeil shares James Mercer’s innate ability to make melodies dance, such a bold attraction in these monotone, ‘energy’-obsessed times.
“WHALE (Boohoo)” live
The album’s eccentric touches, aligned with the current abundance of identikit singer-songwriters, ensures that Idealistic Animals is bound to attract a verbose naysayer or two, but the exotic siren song of “CAMEL (Not Black Or White But Camel)”, berserk cabaret of “WHALE (Boohoo)” and twinkly gospel of all-too-brief closer “KITE (Soon We’ll Light Up)” are quite simply a significant cut above the vast majority of stuff that it’s likely to be bracketed with.
If a criticism can be made, it’s that the lyrics tend to get a bit lost amongst all the colourful instrumentation surrounding it, but that’s a small price to pay for having such a sweet, delicate voice weaving in and out of it all. Those who prize lyrical content above all else should turn it off and read a book. Those who like to be lulled into a state of synaesthetic semi-delirium by dreamy, otherworldly soundscapes, lie back and prepare to be dazzled.
Acoustic version of Dear Reader’s next single “MONKEY (You Can Go Home)”
In a few words: A gorgeous, immersive record that succeeds in guiding the listener gently through emotional peaks and troughs without resorting to jarring sonic bipolarity; in other words, a triumph.
Kind of like a cross between: Joanna Newsome – Have One on Me and Oh Land – Fauna.
Idealistic Animals is out now on City Slang Records. For more information and a list of live dates, including a show with Laura Gibson at London’s The Social on 16th January, please visit dearreadermusic.com