Monday, May 20, 2013

Album Review: Marques Toliver - Land of CanAan

Album Rating: B+
In popular culture, Canaan is best known as the Biblical land of paradise, a God-given place where everything is in abundance and everybody will be safe. On Land of CanAan, however, Marques Toliver finds paradise in a darker place: the line that both opens and closes his debut is drawn not from the Biblical tale but from the autobiography of runaway slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglas. The slaves trapped on cotton plantations in the 1800s, subject to dehumanizing circumstances and the tyranny of their masters, found humanity in singing together. “Oh, Canaan, sweet Canaan,” they cried. “I am bound to the land of Canaan.” The defining struggle on Toliver’s debut, then, becomes about where he himself is bound, artistically and spiritually, and watching him push forward through Land of CanAan’s ten tracks makes for a compelling journey and a promising beginning to his career.

Toliver’s musical heritage stems from two different pools. He connects with classical and gospel music, but his brand of chamber pop abounds with the swagger of R&B and hip-hop. He stretches this marriage of styles in a myriad of directions. “Stay,” for example, may be built on an austere violin line, but Toliver sneaks in all sorts of interesting details: the steady drum beats have an intriguing crunch to them, while synth lines whir in and out of the track. Then there’s the rousing “If Only,” which builds from a quietly romantic introduction into a stunning chorus, where the entrance of trumpets takes his romantic pleas to another level. Land of CanAan may be steeped in age-old tropes and traditions, but Toliver has a whole new host of musical tools at his disposal, and he’s not afraid to use whatever he has to make the most impact possible.

Where the album best succeeds is in its spirit: Land of CanAan is defined by Toliver’s remarkable ambition and optimism in the face of adversity. What’s more, he has the chops to back his sentiments up. His vocals are exquisite, full of soul and offering plenty of texture for listeners to gnaw. His buoyant performance on “Weather Man” gives that song’s gentle chorus its wings, and he conveys steely determination with grace and elegance on the reserved “Try Your Best.” Meanwhile, his ten-plus years of experience with the violin and his grasp of diverse musical styles shows, as each track bursts with confidence and atmosphere. “Control” is a standout: a seductive, sunny turn-me-on with a piano line that bubbles like champagne, powerful gospel vocals backing Toliver and classic indie-rock muscle (drums and the bass), it soars along with his euphoric vocals—and rockets into the stratosphere once he folds “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” into its fabric. It’s a beautifully-crafted piece of pop, showing Toliver’s ability to weave his identity into music so powerful it transcends him.

Yet, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Land of CanAan was meant to make a greater impact than it actually does. The opener “CanAan” promises a tempest--its drums rumble like thunder on the horizon while the strings signify an apocalypse--but at best the album itself is a rainstorm. Songs like “Magic Look” and “Something’s Wrong” lack that sense of gravity, perfectly affable but content with floating by. As charming as Land of CanAan is even at its lows, it’s not always as affecting as it is in its best moments, when Toliver works his way into universal human concerns from his unique vantage point.

Regardless, there’s plenty here to celebrate. Brimming with spirit and showcasing Toliver’s diverse talents, it’s one of the most scrumptious pop albums to grace the stage in 2013 so far. Time to smell the flowers, he says! The rain clouds are finally clearing up—and as he sings on “Weather Man,” the sun is here to dry away all of your sorrows.

Official Website
Album Stream

Track Listing
1. CanAan
2. Stay
3. If Only
4. Try Your Best
5. Repetition
6. Weather Man
7. Magic Look
8. Control
9. Something’s Wrong
10. Find Your Way Back

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