With one sagacious punch to the musical gut, Sarah Slean baffled me into bliss. What rock have I been living under, having not heard of this modern-day descendent of vaudeville's pianist-torch singer until now? Dark, introspective, lush and with her heart on her sleeve, she's pumping out cleverly executed and intriguing contemporary equivalents of barroom ballads, swinging serenades and cabaret confessionals.
This young and proficient Canadian musician abounds with the thrilling (and far too rarely realized) possibility of infiltrating intelligence into pop music, via instrumentation, orchestration and lyricism. A classically trained pianist who studied music at the University of Toronto, it's easy to hear how the piano is the throbbing nucleus of everything here. (Three of the EP's tracks are excerpted from her upcoming release on Atlantic, the other four from two previous independent releases.) Highly impressive is a minuscule side-note stating that in addition to writing all of her own music, Slean also "arranged and conducted all strings and horns."
Not too shabby when the depth and magnitude of these arrangements reveal themselves through the constantly evolving guises of orchestral percussion, brass choirs, string sections, programmed beats and, of course, that bold, ubiquitous piano. It's not that Slean incorporates cool instrumentation -- it's that she does it so creatively, musically and attentively.
Take, for example, the percussion (boasting timpani and cymbal rolls plus subtle tambourine accents) embellishing "Me & Jerome," a sexy road-trip song which manages to jump back and forth between a thundering dark intensity and a series of swelling, mellifluous waves. These percussive components literally deepen the song with their color and warmth, breathing into it a new exuberance.
Slean's greatest ability lies in her ear and its orchestrations, always weaving through the songs' structures. Each track consists of several "compartments" or distinct thematic interpretations, which elegantly evolve into one another. A single track becomes the linking of various tiny worlds, such as in "Sweet Ones," which shifts from a romping piano comp sassed with finger snaps, into an alluring oldies groove with call-and-response chorus, then slides into a briefly gorgeous piano-vocal solo. Unite these compartments with Slean's sexy vocal delivery and the girlish wisdom of her tone and the effect is musically meaty and addictively sensual.