There are some releases that, by their very nature, fly under the radar. They’re understated little gems that deserve far more notice than they’re ever likely to receive. They’re like those little childhood memories, those little things that have a way of lodging themselves in your memory. They integrate themselves in your psyche in ways that you’ll still be trying to understand years from now.
A School of Secret Dangers is like that, as unassuming an album as any I’ve listened to in a long time. The album’s set-up is simple; Annelle’s breathless vocals, minimal acoustic guitar, the occasional field recordings, and odd religious samples. But it’s this minimalism that lets these songs breathe as much as they do. There’s nothing to weigh them down, no overwrought orchestration, no unnecessary arrangements. Just simple songs recorded simply, but with complex results.
An unsettling yet nostalgic atmosphere soon develops over the album. This is certainly helped by Annelle’s breathless vocals, and the effect is greatly enhanced when listening on headphones. You’ll find yourself supressing an urge to look over your shoulder on a song like “Ugly Stray.” With Annelle’s voice sighing in your ear, it’s hard to believe she’s not standing right behind you or playing in the room next door.
On “Broke Down,” Annelle pines like a ghost condemned to wander her gravesite for all eternity. However, it’s only after you delve into the lyrics, and listen to them sung in Annelle’s aching voice that you understand the song’s unsettling undercurrents. “Ugly Stray“ ‘s melody may seem plain at first, but in its own way, it swaggers as drunkenly as The Denver Gentlemen. There’s the notion the song might fall apart at any moment, held only together by the strands of Annelle’s vocals.
And it’s hard to not to get entranced by lyrics such as “Cast off your belongings/Let the rain fall on the awnings/And age each day for a hundred years/‘Til you’ve grown as old as the sea at night/A sleepy thousand years old as the rocks and the trees” (“Idaho”). Annelle’s love of imagery is apparent, though her imagery is faded like old photographs, or paintings left too long in the sun.
It’s hard to write about an album like this, layering on description after description, image after image. Eventually, the review becomes a pretentious piece about a very un-pretentious album. But with an album like this, sometimes it takes a lot of words to accurately express the moods and atmospherics contained therein. In that regard, A School of Secret Dangers is deceptively simple… but it leaves its mark. And like those old memories, it’ll haunt you long after it’s finished.