Ethel Light

[Cantaloupe; 2006]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: string quartet, modern composition, neo-classical crossover, chamber pop
Others: Philip Glass, Apocalyptica, Kronos Quartet, Rasputina

Somewhere in the neighborhood of a decade or so ago, I was reading a magazine article (and much to my chagrin, I cannot recall which magazine it was) about The Cure's Robert Smith, in which he was discussing the making of the band's much-maligned 1996 long-player Wild Mood Swings. Smith mentioned that he had opted to utilize an actual string section for its recording, rather than rely on the group's characteristic processed synth strings. He went on to lament the difficulties presented by working with classically trained musicians, especially with regard to rhythm and tempo. According to Smith, classical musicians are fundamentally incompatible with "rock" musicians, as their adherence to strict time signatures and tempo tends to be more loosely governed than that of the traditional rock rhythm section, since the composer's tempo tends to be dictated, or at least interpreted, by a conductor. Smith's notorious fastidiousness probably didn't help the recording process much in this regard, either. Upon listening to Light, the second full-length from Ethel, I couldn't help but recall the Cure article I read so long ago and consider how these musicians may have been just what the doctor ordered, as far as Robert Smith was concerned.

Ethel, a string quartet residing in New York City, are a modern classical act that have the uncanny ability to cross over so many genre boundaries that it's stunning. Equally comfortable plying their trade in the classical, rock, jazz, blues, and country and western idioms, Ethel have created a lush and epic work in their sophomore album that often sounds vastly more than the sum of its parts. Part of Light's charm, as on the leftfield "Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances" and "Also Sprach Einstein," is derived from the band's tongue-in-cheek quirkiness and welcome sense of humor. Ethel have toured with the likes of both Joe Jackson and Todd Rundgren, and it's easy to see how the foursome could be compatible as a supporting act for such idiosyncratic artists. Aggressive and energetic, pieces such as the album's opener, "Arrival," which is one of several from composer Marcelo Zarvos' work Nepomuk's Dances, must transfer well in a live setting. The taut, unconventional structure of Ethel's playing style and their animated delivery, which is almost percussive at times, should appeal to aficionados of chamber and experimental music alike.

"Sambula," a composition from Mary Rowell, one of Ethel's violinists, is a fun and evocative piece reminiscent of some of the better early compositions of Danny Elfman. Upbeat and rife with droll charm, the piece is one of the highlights on Light. "Chai," one of cellist Dorothy Lawson's contributions, is a bluesy, sensual number that, to this reviewer's ears, best highlights Ethel's extraordinarily wide dynamic range. On "Pelimanni's Revenge," a composition from Finnish composer Timo Alakotila, Ethel could fairly accurately be described as a fiddle quartet. Ethel demonstrate how capable they are, despite their classical pedigree, of adapting themselves to folk music and traditional material. "Memory," another Zarvos piece, is a lively track that showcases the considerable precision and fluidity with which these musicians perform. Similar in tone to "Arrival," this piece resonates with cinematic opulence. Also worthy of note are two other haunting and majestic tracks, "Sickness and Death" and "After Dust." Mournful and brooding, they work to offset the light-hearted whimsy endemic to the remainder of the album. Though, to be fair, the despair inherent in much modern classical music is merely hinted at on these two tracks.

On the whole, Light is an impressive, intimate recording that, despite the occasional gimmickry and performance art affectations, should satisfy the ear of those whose classical leanings are inclined toward the experimental and postmodern. Ethel provide an intriguing measure of insight into that nebulous region where classical and pop intersect.

1. Arrival
2. Sambula
3. Lighthouse
4. Chai
5. Requiem
6. Pelimanni's Revenge
7. Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances
8. Sickness and Death
9. Memory
10. After Dust
11. #3 from 'Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye'
12. Also Sprach Einstein