'Astute TSB readers will recall that Rhian Sheehan's last effort, Standing in Silence, was one of our highest-rated releases of 2009, coming in at #5 on our year-end chart. Standing in Silence is still Sheehan's release to beat, for the following reasons: 1) The new release is only half as long; 2) The concept (nostalgia, innocence, memories) is not as strong; 3) The orchestra is absent; and 4) It doesn't come with a music box. But in two ways, Seven Tales of the North Wind is better than its predecessor: 1) It's consistent all the way through; and 2) Unlike the previous release, which tailed off a bit near the end, it contains no filler.
Themes of nostalgia, innocence and memories have become common in modern composition. Yet the attempt to capture such feelings often results in ironic incongruency. First, there's a huge disconnect between music made to reflect childhood innocence and the music that children themselves will enjoy. In other words, its target audience is different from its subject audience. Sheehan admits that while his two young children enjoy many of his compositions, when he plays this EP for them, it makes them sleepy. (Parents, take note! This could be a very useful weapon for the War on Bedtime!) This is not to say that the composing technique is deficient, but that albums such as Seven Tales seek to recapture childhood through the perspective of adulthood, but can only succeed in rekindling the wonder that such innocence ever existed. As such, these efforts are always by nature bittersweet; as much as they wish to uplift and inspire, they are made vulnerable by the very nostalgia to which they gravitate.
The second irony involved in such efforts is that they tend to reflect an idealized childhood. Any parent who has survived the "terrible twos" is probably relieved that Sheehan didn't make that EP: the EP of skinned knees, "I want that"s, "I won't eat my peas" and the all-out, face down, arms and legs akimbo temper tantrum. Nor has Sheehan made the EP of night terrors, monsters in the closet, "don't let the bedbugs bite", and "I pray the Lord my soul to take". It's difficult to say which of the above would be the more frightening. The North Wind of this recording (heard at the end of the opening track) is instead meant to be benign; it's the wind that whips through Sheehan's New Zealand house, and has naught to do with Aesop's tale. Seven Tales is instead an ode to and a celebration of childhood's best: the playgrounds and the crayons, the questions about constellations, the sudden hugs and "I love you"s.
Seven Tales first works up to, then slowly ebbs away from its centerpiece, the eight-minute "February". On the way, we hear wind and rain, bells and birds, children playing, and the sounds of music boxes, xylophones, glockenspiels and wind chimes. But when the second half of "February" arrives, a deeper resonance is achieved, as the violin - an instrument not typically associated with childhood - lends the recording exactly what it needs, an overt statement of sadness to counter the candy-coated memories. In the moment when all the other childhood-evoking instruments leave, the grown-up listener is forced back to reality. As adults, we have lost something that can't be regained, that can be seen only through the damaged lens of maturity, a poor facsimile of something we could never fully appreciate until we moved outside its realm.
In the end, Seven Tales succeeds not with a grand statement, but with a humble observation. As the EP's final seconds approach, the notes grow warped, rise in volume, then slow like their plug has been yanked. It's the only artificial sound on an otherwise natural-sounding album, a reminder that childhood is over too soon, implying that although we may miss our own innocence, we still have the chance to protect and extend the innocence of the next generation.'
Written byRichard Allen @ www.thesilentballet.com
Rhian Sheehan - Seven Tales of the North Wind (2011)