Memories of a Color by Stina Nordenstam (Review)

Though it starts off in jazzy pop-lite territory, Stina Nordenstam’s debut develops an emotional wallop by its end.
Memories of a Color - Stina Nordenstam

The first stumbling block people are likely to encounter when they listen to Memories of a Color will be the vocals of Stina Nordenstam themselves. Imagine a younger, more girlish version of Björk’s cooing mixed with equal doses of Alison Shaw (The Cranes) and Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins), and you might be getting close. Now, if that potential combination intrigues you, then you’ll probably have no objection with Nordenstam’s voice, though you might with the music (more on that later).

On the other hand, I can completely sympathize with people who might find Nordenstam’s voice annoying and even grating. At times, her voice becomes almost too precious and mousy for its own good, sounding like a frail, coquette-ish girl trying to win over the listener with too-breathy sighs, bashful looks, and batting eyelashes.

But even if you find yourself getting intoxicated on Nordenstam’s vocals (as I do), her musical selection is likely to give you yet another pause. Although consistently lush and polished, parts of Memories of a Color drift off dangerously deep into light jazz/contemporary AC pop. I got a few odd looks and comments from my roommate and a visiting friend when I had this on the stereo, as these are sounds not normally heard in the apartment. I’ll be frank, some of the songs can be a bit groan-inducing at times. Sax and fretless bass-laden numbers like “The Return of Alan Bean” and “I’ll Be Cryin’ Over You” almost drown in their own sappiness, especially when combined with Nordenstam’s cooing, which is at its breathiest and most unintelligible during these moments.

When I first heard Nordenstam sing, oh so wispily, “ Cause it’s so hard to return from the moon” over a wailing saxophone, I wondered if I’d made a mistake buying this disc. There are still times, even now, when I find myself grimacing at some of the musical arrangements, which seem better primed for the likes Celine Dion.

But what redeems the album and makes it such a compelling listen — so much so that it puts even some of the disc’s cheesier moments in a new light — are the melancholy torchsongs that appear throughout. The playing and arrangements are as slick as the other material — just check out the piano bridge on “His Song” — but the strings and horns are delightfully restrained and intoxicating, as are Nordenstam’s vocals.

Nordenstam’s delicate vocals drift across a languid guitar melody on “Another Story Girl”; they’re tinted the right shade of heartache for a song about trying to take the place of a lover’s ex-girlfriend — and seeing why she left in the first place. I’ve already mentioned “His Song,” which is bookended by string arrangements so lovely I half-expected to see Craig Armstrong’s name in the liner notes. (As it turns out, Nordenstam herself did all of the arrangements.) “Alone at Night” is the album’s most surreal moment. Nordenstam’s frail voice creeps about surrounded by haunting strings and ghostly loops that half echo/half mock her as she sings of haunted houses, stranded spacecraft, and futility.

However, the album’s linchpin is the heartwrenching “Soon After Christmas.” Nordenstam sounds like she’s on the verge of tears throughout the song, and it often has to pause so she can regain her composure, take a deep breath, and continue on. Barely supported by a delicate piano melody and slight, achingly beautiful strings, her oh-so-tiny voice practically shivers with desire (“Every inch of my skin is crying for your hands”) and vulnerability (“You’ve got me slightly disappointed/Just a bit and just enough/To keep me up another night/Waiting for another day”). It’s an absolutely spellbinding track, one that makes you stop whatever you’re doing and just listen.

I almost wonder if Nordenstam wasn’t trying to do a bit of a switcheroo on this album. As Memories of a Color progresses, it gets increasingly abstract and melancholy, until it’s a far cry from the jazzy, contemporary pop-lite that characterizes the first half. I think it’s safe to say that, should you find yourself a bit puzzled and/or dismayed when you first start listening to Memories of a Color, there’s a good chance that Nordenstam’s music will have you completely bewitched by the time the album has begun winding down.

Read more reviews of Stina Nordenstam.