Best known for her contributions to Damien Rice’s extraordinary O and its underwhelming follow-up 9, Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan finally makes her solo debut with Sea Sew. What’s most interesting about the record is the way that it reflects her collaboration with Rice: Using these songs as evidence, Hannigan either played a major role in developing the sound that has become Rice’s trademark or she has used that particular sound as the primary template for her own work. If that gives the album a level of postmodern ambiguity, what Sea Sew makes clear is that Hannigan is a serious talent in her own right. With its horn section, shuffling rhythm, and slow-building crescendo, “I Don’t Know” could make for a leftfield pop hit like Feist’s “1 2 3 4,” while the stately sophistication of opener “Ocean and a Rock” places the emphasis on Hannigan’s warm vocal performance. Later, on the clipped, jagged “Keep It All,” the tone of her delicate upper register surprises for how it favorably recalls Beth Gibbons, and the song’s production stands out by foregrounding its drum machine backbeat and a contrapuntal, plucked string figure that eventually gives way to a haunting choral chant. Hannigan takes more risks with the arrangements of her songs here than Rice has with his (the discordant string section that opens Hannigan’s “Courting Blues” resurfaces over the course of the song is a particularly high-minded highlight), and those arrangements are well matched to the idiosyncratic syntax and imagery of her lyrics. Unassuming and refreshingly lacking in the pretension of so many contemporary folk-pop records, Sea Sew makes for both a challenging and a charming proper introduction for Hannigan.
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