Odessa Chen first wowed listeners lucky enough to hear her 2003 debut CD One Room Palace. Years have passed since that wisp of a voice singing over a classical-folk hybrid reached the ears of music fans. While Chen did tour world wide promoting that disc, one couldn’t be blamed for wondering if, with the long layoff from recorded output, Chen had resigned herself to a fate of being a flash in the large pan of independent music (albeit a brightly shining flash). Fast forward to 2007, though, and the release of The Ballad of Paper Ships, Chen’s second full-length disc. Chen staves off any inclinations of a sophomore slump with this disc of sparkling, moody compositions laced with lyrics of sadness, regret, and a faint, world-weary hope. While Chen wisely utilizes the musical talents of guest musicians from bands such as Wilco, Tarentel and The Drift, they somehow never seem to outshine Chen, despite their sensitive and able playing. It’s just that Chen, front and center with her vulnerable songs and naked voice, manages to again shine brightly as a star illuminating a dark, desolate wilderness…an apt description not only of her poignant music, but of her position as a stunning talent in the usually paint-by-numbers music world.
Chen creates a chillingly stark soundscape through her gorgeously expressive voice, tender arrangements, and lyrics full of barren imagery. “Kill The Lights” opens The Ballad of Paper Ships with a slow-burning intensity undergirding that unmistakable voice singing such harrowed stanzas as “Damn the day, it hurts to leave a trace, miles conspire to erase, but I still see your face”. Chen has mastered the uncommon art of painting scenes of heartache and longing through her lyrics and perfectly suited arrangements. “Made Up My Mind” combines a radio-friendly melody with the dark lyrical undertones of existential resignation, while “Harm” ebbs and flows with a palatable yearning in Chen’s delivery and keen production. “The Weight” slyly floats along at first with subtle instrumentation, only to give way to a weighty beat and full-band production. “Small Birds” showcases Chen’s classical vocal range, as her voice delicately floats over a subtle but dramatically building arrangement of guitar lines, ominous percussive flourishes, ending in an explosion of sound reminiscent of the louder moments on One Room Palace. The title track is a folksy and quiet number, and “Ave Maria” is an equally tender tribute to Elliott Smith that features a nice cello part and angelic harmonies by Chen on the songs choruses. Finally, “The Fourth of July” ends the CD on a fragile but emotional note, complete with a steady but nuanced arrangement cradling Chen’s ever-exposed vocals.
Odessa Chen is a rare talent, simply stated. She has the songwriting and lyric-crafting chops to send shivers up and down the spine of listeners, and her voice is truly a thing if sheer beauty. Chen shows on The Ballad of Paper Ships that the genius of her debut was no fluke. In actuality, she’s come into her own with The Ballad of Paper Ships, writing, producing, and performing a spectacular and shimmering work of intensity. Stunningly executed, The Ballad of Paper Ships is a wondrous CD, and well worth the four year wait. Chen is a true artist in a day when songcraft and performance have given way to gaudy production tricks and image. Fans of Low, Cat Power, Early Day Miners’ most haunting and subtle moments, and Jeff Buckey take note…you have a new hero in Odessa Chen.