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Harriet Fraser

Peace (2021)

4.3

December 29, 2021

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 O Shenandoah 4.0
2 Peace Pilgrim’s Prayer 4.0
3 Scarborough Fair 3.7
4 Angel Band 4.0
5 Silver 5.0
6 Song of Night 4.0
7 Brahms’ Lullaby 3.7
8 Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes 4.7
9 O How Lovely Is the Evening 3.3
10 Lulla-lullaby 4.3
11 Abide with Me 4.3
12 All Through the Night 4.3

Recorded 2020 – 2021
Total time: 32:00, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 O Shenandoah 5
2 Peace Pilgrim’s Prayer 5
3 Scarborough Fair 4
4 Angel Band 4
5 Silver 5
6 Song of Night 4
7 Brahms’ Lullaby 4
8 Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes 5
9 O How Lovely Is the Evening 4
10 Lulla-lullaby 4
11 Abide with Me 4
12 All Through the Night 5

Recorded a cappella can range from a bombastic small vocal band, to an oft-arc-shaped collegiate group. Harriet Fraser's new solo album is transformative and exists on a different plane of simple, yet complex easy listening. Peace lives up to its namesake: Fraser's Enya-like serene qualities emanate through every track and transport the listener to a calm state of mind through thoughtful covers of folk and traditional tunes.

As an opener, O Shenandoah sets the table for the tracks to come. The familiar strain begins in canon, and Fraser chooses specific spots to switch to a more homogenous texture. The simple tracks of her own voice move as one, often with another track taking over where the last left off. The listener is, quite simply, taken on a journey. Peace Pilgrim's Prayer, practically the title track of the album with its emphasis on "peace", follows a similar format and is arguably an even stronger track due in part to its heavier use of consonants and buoyant rhythms. Gripping opening chords charactize the ethereal beauty that is Silver, and Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes features a lovely dynamic arc and perfectly locked middle-high close harmonies.

The album is special largely due to the delicate care in its execution. Musicality and expression of organic, natural dynamics is always a draw for me in recorded music. Careful, intentional phrasing is present on every track and the level of muscality is extremely high. As the sole performer, a producer, and recording technician, Fraser deserves a great deal of credit. But it would be an omission not to include props to Dana Nielsen for co-producing, mixing, and mastering; and Shawn Kirchner for the arrangements (not to mention two compositions: Peace Pilgrim's Prayer and Song of Night).

While there are moments of extended repetition or bareness in parts, the album is overwhelmingly effective in its use of simple devices. For easy listening, study/focus music, an intellectual view into stretching the limits of solo a cappella, or just a tranquil half-hour: Peace is for you.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 O Shenandoah 4
2 Peace Pilgrim’s Prayer 4
3 Scarborough Fair 3
4 Angel Band 5
5 Silver 5
6 Song of Night 4
7 Brahms’ Lullaby 4
8 Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes 5
9 O How Lovely Is the Evening 3
10 Lulla-lullaby 5
11 Abide with Me 5
12 All Through the Night 4

Opening your lead voice to judgment and critique is hard enough as it is, but it takes even more guts when your voice plays all of the supporting roles as well. Every harmony, every phrase, every syllable and diphthong is completely exposed, so blips or inconsistencies become ever more distracting. Harriet Fraser enthusiastically accepts this challenge on Peace and succeeds gracefully. The result is a beautifully soothing, if occasionally stagnant, solo project.

The easiest first piece of praise is the absolute pristine lead vocal performance by Fraser. I mentioned earlier that this type of album exposes every little inconsistency to the listener, and Fraser wastes no effort in ensuring the final lead vocals are nearly devoid of these. Almost every phrase has momentum and direction, every syllable and consonant with a considered contour and pace. Her default tone is warm and clear, and she stays in this pocket perpetually. But she also stops short of attempting absolute robotic perfection in the final product — common in many a cappella records — and this keeps Peace feeling authentically human. Fraser's lead vocals especially have their time to blossom on the surprisingly haunting Silver, where she sings against mostly non-homophonic background vocals, and on Abide With Me, which is more homophonically backed and charged with the emotional depth the lyric demands.

The backing vocals are strong but also where the project starts to falter at times. On most songs, Fraser sings the harmony parts with just as much momentum and interest as her lead vocals. The arrangements by Shawn Kirchner also allow for interesting embellishments even in a minimalist-driven album, such as the rhythmic accents on word echoes in Lulla-lullaby and the tastefully subtle arpeggiation used occasionally in Angel Band.

As I mentioned earlier, however, when layers are minimal it exposes the lacking moments even more, and there are some tracks where the background vocals stagnate. Scarborough Fair is probably most guilty of this, where each voice echo feels too similar to the last. When those voice echoes are almost the entirety of the track's backbone, the whole song stops in its tracks as a result.

Maybe this is more a side effect of some of the arrangements, though. Don't get me wrong; Kirchner's arrangements are mostly a great conduit for Fraser's vocals and have great attention to detail. The area of improvement comes from blips of unrealized potential, rather than overt faults and distractions. Tracks like Shenandoah, Peace Pilgrim's Prayer, and Song of Night are all well put together but lack the extra bit of spice that could make them truly special. O How Lovely is the Evening's arrangement feels especially half-baked; there are amazing ideas in there, but the song is over before they are realized.

On the other hand, when the spice is there, a track really opens up. Lulla-lullaby's intro and outro hums are stunning transition points. Angel Band uses the relative delicateness of the rest of the album to make just a touch more volume and layers at the climax feel especially grand. The unison at the end of Abide With Me ties the track in a beautifully neat bow that also tells a fitting story for the song itself.

The production by Fraser and Dana Nielsen is simply stellar. It's exactly what it needs to be, nothing more and nothing less. Harriet Fraser's voice comes out crystal clear. Overtones feel warm and produce an angelic-like aura around just about every song. Reverb is there just enough to feel authentic to an auditorium performance, but not enough to feel overpowering. It especially allows songs like Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes to breathe — retaining focus on Fraser's vocals, possibly sung in an acoustically dampened studio but setting the scene as if in a grand chapel.

The technique and excellence put into Peace are simply outstanding, and it's a great album as-is. Inconsistent momentum and unrealized song potential are shortcomings that could exist on any other a cappella project. That Harriet Fraser can do as much as she did with just a couple of other partners is impressive, and it means there is both a perfect opportunity to, and no excuse not to, realize these opportunities in the future.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 O Shenandoah 3
2 Peace Pilgrim’s Prayer 3
3 Scarborough Fair 4
4 Angel Band 3
5 Silver 5
6 Song of Night 4
7 Brahms’ Lullaby 3
8 Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes 4
9 O How Lovely Is the Evening 3
10 Lulla-lullaby 4
11 Abide with Me 4
12 All Through the Night 4

British soprano Harriet Fraser, known for her choral, opera, and studio work, shows off her voice alone on her debut solo album Peace. Fraser's controlled voice suits the arrangements, on which she sings all the parts, of mostly traditional Anglophone melodies. Though an album defined by slow songs and placid mood might not be everyone's cup of tea, Peace might cause us to re-evaluate what we listen for in a cappella and why.

The opening track, O Shenandoah, captures much of what one can expect from the rest of the album. Heavy reverb creates an omnipresent, ethereal echo, which causes chords to bleed into the next. Shawn Kirchner's arrangements rarely stray from the expected harmonies, especially on well-known tracks such as this one or Brahms' Lullaby, and unfold gently in their arcs. As one might expect with this repertoire, Fraser's multiplied voices alternate between singing in round, such as on Peace Pilgrim's Prayer, or in homophony, like on Scarborough Fair; very different textures from most contemporary a cappella. The starkness of the tracks allows for listeners to hear Fraser's subtle expressive gestures — small dynamic swells, moments of vibrato — and appreciate how quiety she can sing in her high register, such as on All Through the Night. On the other hand, it also exposes the few times there are discrepancies in consonant placement or balance between the voice parts.

While many of the tracks share traits of consonant harmonies and minimal development over time in the arrangements, Silver stands out from the crowd from the opening major-seventh chord. Even though the track largely features these relatively crunchy harmonies that seem to propel it forward, Silver somehow still feels still and sparse. Lulla-lullaby and Abide with Me also lean into some dissonance, though in limited moments.

One feature of albums I usually consider is track variety. Are the songs different from each other, which can show range and risk-taking? Does the order or song selection create a thread or narrative to follow? These questions, while important and potentially revealing, would misrepresent an album like Peace where the tracks are intentionally similar in mood, dynamics, and harmonies — even the voice parts are all sung by Fraser! Better questions would be how and when might someone listen to this album? For people who work or study to chill music, they might take a break from lo-fi beats and instead put on calming choral music. The songs can set the mood for someone seeking tranquility or peace, as background music or with the listener's full attention. Perhaps you want to hear a specific tune, such as the Celtic standard Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes, or play one of several lullabies on the album to soothe a child to sleep. Though not necessarily novel or energetic in the ways one usually hears from a cappella groups, Fraser's music might reach a broader audience precisely because of the sameness of the tracks and show a new side to this multi-genre artist.

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Ordering Information

Peace is available at www.harrietfraser.com and streams on Spotify.

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