For years, i’ve had a penchant for female singers with unconventional voices. This is, i suspect, as much to do with the fact that such singers usually surround their voice with equally unconventional sounds, as with the actual voices themselves. The list is considerable: Clodagh Simonds (Fovea Hex), Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil), Toni Halliday (Curve), Sierra and Bianca Casady (CocoRosie), Imogen Heap, Joanna Newsom, Anne Marie Almedal (AM and the UV), Claudia Brücken (Onetwo/Propaganda), Beth Gibbons (Portishead), Emiliana Torrini, Björk, Tori Amos, Ute Wassermann, and i’d even include t.A.T.u.’s Yulia Volkova, although she’s rather more mainstream. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these singers’ appeal, though, is in their ability – fuelled by their unconventionality – to bring a new kind of expressive power to songs, a power that is often extremely direct and moving.
A notable omission from the above list – and one of the most rapturous voices i’ve ever heard – is Elsieanne Caplette, one half of the Canadian duo, Elsiane (the name is an amalgam of her and drummer Stephane Sotto’s first names). Apart from anything else, they’re a curiously stylish entity, Caplette’s classical training fusing and fizzling with Sotto’s background in art history. Sonically, they are, literally, breathtaking; it becomes apparent listening to them how often singers don’t really sing, preferring either to murmur within a narrow cluster of notes or meander aimlessly in all directions. Elsiane, on the other hand, are the epitome of cantabile, their melodies singing out the journey that their poetic, intimate lyrics require, at times almost too low for Caplette’s voice, other times squealing high notes, but whether each comes from ecstasy or angst remains ambiguous. There’s a confident lushness to the soundscapes that surround these lyrics – strings are used frequently – that belies the fragile uncertainty that they capture: ‘Come enter the world from where I’m coming/It’s a hell of a world, this is all inside/It’s always growing inside of me’ (from “Paranoia”), ‘Here I begin to fail/the steps of a battle without sense/I’ve nearly begun to understand as I’ve grown my way/There is no light out of all the places’ (from “Hybrid”). For all their prettiness and glossy appearance, these songs declare an anguish that cuts very deep. and yet, there’s a lightness, a buoyancy at times that is so blunt and ecstatic that tears are unavoidably jerked from one’s eyes. As we so often are ourselves, Elsiane’s songs are conflicted and confused, and therein lies their power, their pain and their incredible beauty.
To date, Elsiane have only released a single album, Hybrid, which i feel ranks as one of the most stunning début albums by any artist. Perhaps their most well-known track is the opener, “Vaporous”, a gentle lament to feelings of insubstantiality, with a beautifully low-key (and low-pitched) melody. “Prosaic” is similarly languid, invoking the lazy trip-hoppiness of Portishead alongside inscrutable words. “Hybrid” is the album’s dark denouement, the surprisingly exposed melody growing from small to wide circles, mirroring the text, all questions and no answers. But without question the highlight is “Mend (To Fix, To Repair)”, Caplette’s voice at its strangest and most radiant, allowing poignant glimpses of happier times (‘You’ve been precious to me/I’ve been blessed in a way/But now…’) in one of the most utterly gorgeous songs ever written. If you listen to one thing this year, make it this song; there simply aren’t words to do justice to its glory.