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Charlotte Martin - "Stromata"
(Dinosaur Fight, 2006)

Charlotte Martin's latest album is an epic, experimental effort which bursts through genres one by one, stunning the listener with a tour de force of sounds that wraps around your head so tightly it cries out for the headphone experience. More surprises abound within Stromata's 48 minutes than in any album so far in 2006, and though it's not a perfectly successful experiment, this is a most refreshing album.

Martin, who broke onto the scene two years ago with On Your Shore, her RCA full-length debut, drew immediate comparisons to Tori Amos, who she somewhat resembled, and Kate Bush, who she appeared to want to emulate. For the most part she was successful, though one of the album's best tracks, "Every Time It Rains," was nearly a pitch perfect remake of Bush's "Running Up That Hill," just with different lyrics. Imitation may be one of the best forms of flattery, but there's a fine line between flattery and obsession.

Thankfully, Martin has chosen to skip an entire series of evolutionary steps with Stromata. Together with producer-husband Ken Andrews, she has crafted thirteen tracks that are high concept aural tapestries. Owing much to both the art-rock revolution of the seventies and the electronic evolution of the eighties, each of these tracks builds discordant rhythms, deep resonant piano chords and wraparound vocals that probe the area between the ears for signs of life. I listened to this album for the first time on a pair of stereo headphones and the experience was akin to running laps from the comfort of my easy chair.

"Little Universe" is a standout example. The song opens with a trip hop beat reminiscent of Massive Attack, going from speaker to speaker pounding on your mind as the vocals come in almost on a different wavelength. Subsequent bass layers are added on specifically to be dissonant, adding layers that make the heart race and the mind reel as one attempts to bring it all together. It's an amazing track, but it stands out even more because, despite the boundary-pushing of the album's first three tracks, it comes as a complete and utter surprise.

Other standout tracks include the album's title track, an honest rocker that uses electronic sounds to bolster the affect. It works like a charm, and would have sounded at home on Tori Amos's album From The Choirgirl Hotel, an almost perfect companion to Amos's song "Spark." Were this the mid-nineties, that track would be climbing the adult alternative charts like a rocket. Unfortunately it's liable to be a hard-sell to the increasingly constrictive American radio market.

"The Dance" opens with a tribal drum beat and Martin's voice, which becomes the object of layering. Synths come in mid-way, right as the vocal layers hit their zenith. It's wondrous in its operatic scope. And it leads into the album's closer, "Redeemed," which starts out as a fairly basic piano-pop track, then (with help from one of the best hooks on the album) the sonic tone completely shifts; the second verse, backed by expressive piano, drums and vocals, gives way to an interlude that features a wall of piano, guitar and drums coupled with Martin's layer upon layer of wailed vocals. It's the perfect album closer, a stunner that demands a full album replay.

The album's not perfect. A few album-track missteps detract from the overall flow, keeping Stromata from having the "complete package" impact it could have had. "Pills" sounds like it got ripped directly from Alice in Wonderland, and sounds absolutely ridiculous coming at a pivotal point late in the album. And "Just Before Dawn" leads into "The Dance" with two minutes of almost pure opera, something that would work if it was actually more than just a trial balloon. Instead it just sounds out of place.

But the album as a whole is an absolute stunner. An artistic leap in the right direction, Charlotte Martin is now in full control of her musical destiny. If she takes advantage of the opportunity, she should be able to launch a long successful career with this album, regardless of whether radio ever catches on. In a year where Regina Spektor's Begin To Hope was able to crack the Billboard 200 in all its piano-experimental glory, Stromata has the potential to be very successful indeed.

Stromata will be released by Dinosaur Fight on September 12, 2006. For more information, visit www.charlottemartin.com.

All reviews (c) Jonathan Sanders, 2004-2006, all rights reserved. No part of these reviews may be retransmitted without express written permission.