Some albums come across as being made purely for marketing or career purposes. That doesn’t invalidate them, but it does put them in certain place in my mind. Some albums, however, feel like they stem from the very soul of the artist. It’s as if they absolutely had to make the album or else their very heart might explode from sheer expression and emotion. The new solo record from Courtney Swain is definitely the latter type of album. “Between Blood and Ocean” releases on May 1st, and it is an intensely personal experience.
Courtney hails from Rhode Island, and is best known as the vocalist and keyboardist for Bent Knee. Her powerful voice and matchless style is instantly noticeable. On this record, she handles vocals, piano, and keyboards herself. The rest of the line up includes: Asher Kurtz on guitar; Jed Lingat on bass, and Kyle Harris on drums. Tim Doherty guests on guitar on one track, as well.
Most of us are probably accustomed to hearing Courtney alongside the crazy time signatures and stuttering grooves of Bent Knee. This album is more like that band’s atmospheric portions and personal ballads. The music is slower, ponderous, poetic, and lyrically powerful. The tones are often hushed and the beats are mostly more gentle in effect, and this goes along very well with Courtney’s expressive vocal performance, which can often be eccentric. Of course, if the record weren’t quirky or unique in some way, it wouldn’t be written by Courtney Swain.
The lyrics on this album need more attention. They are sincere, ambiguous, and mysterious. Courtney’s writing skills are intensely apparent here. However, the meaning of the lyrics is something you can feel in your core, even if it is difficult to put into words. From my perspective, the general gist of the writing here is about feeling societal and relational pressures that dampen and drain our souls of life. These pressures can blind us from what is truly important and from the love so very close to us. Sometimes, that love is our own heart, and we often ignore our own needs to focus on what other people think we should be. The writing, as you can tell, is quite private and introspective.
The range of songs on this album is truly impressive. Like I said, most are quiet and meditative, but others are more boisterous and animated. “Uranium City”, for instance, sets the stage for the slower, more evocative approach of the album. Even “Sweet Snow” feels blurred and eerie, almost like a memory. “Snowflakes” might be the slowest song on the record, even, but it is also one of my favorites. It is grand in vocal fashion, but feels quiet and muted, almost like someone singing their heart out in the middle of a heavy snowfall in the silent, darkened night. It has a bit of shoegaze to it, too, which makes it even more emotional and introspective. The album closes with “Sand Angels”, another slower, yet emotionally climactic track all about self-care.
Several of the songs are bouncier and more upbeat. “I’d Kill” is the first such song on the album, and Courtney’s signature vocals are in full effect here, as are her fantastic keys that always come across as an extension of herself. “Don’t Look at Me” is one of the most energetic songs on the record, offering lots of pounding drums and distorted tones. “Silver Needle of Pine” is a rush of emotion and instrumentation. The guitar work here is all about creating a mounting atmosphere, and Courtney’s vocals back it up with out-of-body harmonies.
All of the songs on this album are memorable, though. I do want to point out one more, called “White Trees”. It soaks us in autotune, and I love it. Courtney does not seem to use autotune very much, but here it is used for joyous effect. Courtney’s unique and varied style is on full display throughout this record, and you can even see this even in the simple yet brilliant cover art (painted by Chisato Tanaka) and the fantastic promo images.
“Between Blood and Ocean” is an outcry of the heart, something I really appreciate. I can empathize and identify with the many emotions on display here, and it definitely helps that the music is awesome, too. I know it can be difficult to release such personal expressions, especially if one has so many internal struggles like I know I have, but offering such beautiful music and words to the world can only help to heal others. I think Courtney does that wonderfully here.
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