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On her fourth album “Rabbits On the Run” mainstream hopeful Vanessa Carlton underwent a staggering artistic transformation from bright-eyed piano pop star into something altogether more interesting. “Rabbits On the Run”, Carlton’s fourth record on her third label partner, was the first manifestation of her artistic reinvention and resurrection into an indie artist. "Rabbits On the Run" that saw her pursuing a more introspective and contemplative direction. “Rabbits On the Run” is only partly succesfull insofar that Vanessa Carlton had yet to find her voice. Less accessible and more idiosyncratic than any of its immediate predecessors, the album heralds a new era for Carlton as an artist in more ways than one.

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As an artist Vanessa Carlton has come a far way since the early days of ‘A Thousand Miles’, and she has managed to keep both her soul and integrity intact, even if it came at the expense of mainstream popularity. “Rabbits On the Run” shows the world a darker and more contemplative Vanessa Carlton. Obviously Carlton is less concerned with writing the next big pop hit with this album, and more interested in creating meaningful art. To date it is the only album in her catalog to not feature a photograph or an illustration from Vanessa as it frontcover artwork. The rabbits on the frontcover were drawn by illustrator Joe Radcliff. Despite missing visual continuity with its major label counterparts “Rabbits On the Run” is a far more profound and less poppy record.

“Rabbits On the Run” starts off in familiar territory with ‘Carousel’, an upbeat pop song in tradition of ‘A Thousand Miles’. The track builds towards a climax that is never capitalized upon. It is from this track that the album took its title. The keen listener with notice the difference in vocal stylings that are more folk inspired. While Carlton retains her “Harmonium” register the vocal lines are less obviously hook-oriented and outright poppy. ‘London’ is a serene pop song stylistically closer to “Harmonium” and “Be Not Nobody”. ‘Fairweather Friend’ sounds familiar as it partly reuses a melody from album opener ‘Carousel’. ‘Hear the Bells’ is a stylistic precursor of Carlton’s future direction with “Liberman” and its companion “Blue Pool” EP. Everything that would come to define Vanessa’s new direction, musically as well as from a production standpoint, are first introduced here. Notable is that the second part of the album is darker than the first.

The record feels greatly inspired by Tori Amos, and the more introspective later works of Norwegian singer-songwriter Lene Marlin. ‘Carousel’ for the most part recalls her earlier work but the tempo is notably lower. No longer forced into high register vocal lines Vanessa’s more comfortable with her range than ever before. Tracks like ‘London’ and ‘Fairweather Friend’ play up to her range and timbre as a singer. Usually the sparser the arrangement the stronger Vanessa’s vocals come across. A lot of the song arrangements form callbacks to Carlton’s minimal demo material. On “Rabbits On the Run” the dreampop direction that she would later take manifests itself only on a few tracks, most notably on the introspective ‘Hear the Bells’ and ‘Tall Tales For Spring’. The absence of any notable hit singles makes the album all the more potent in its artistry.

The album went through an extended pre-production phase, and working titles for it were ‘Tall Tales For Spring’ and ‘Fairweather Friends’ before settling on the current title. It was produced independently by Carlton and only later sourced out to a label for wider distribution and marketing. Initially ‘I Don’t Wanna Be A Bride’ was suggested as a second single, but ‘Hear the Bells’ got the treatment instead. “Rabbits On the Run” saw Vanessa abandoning her nubile piano girl image, from this album onward Carlton opts for an almost Jex Thoth-like wiccan/flower girl look instead that becomes her. By forgoing the image she was forced into by her label partner Vanessa is now is freer in every sense to decide her fate. The choices on this album are hers and hers alone. In many ways “Rabbits On the Run” harkens back to the days of her “Rinse” demo album.

For the first time Vanessa traveled to Europe to record an album. After a long search for the most inspiring studio environment Carlton eventually decided to record at Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England with Steve Osborne producing. Independently financed by Carlton herself and later licensed to Razor & Tie for wider release “Rabbits On the Run” is a labor of love that sounds as fantastic as all of Vanessa’s albums. Observant listeners will notice that the production is slightly less glossy than her previous three major label albums. What the album lacks in textural gloss and visual flair it more than compensates by the sheer honesty and freedom it allows its creator. With no label – or industry pressure to smother her creativity Vanessa finally could unleash her inner artist. It would be several years until that would come to pass…

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As a critic every few years you stumble upon bands that defy easy categorization. This can happen for any number of reasons. Some bands end up combining so many disparate elements that none of it resembles anything recognizable, other bands – as is the case with folk/rock band Serpentyne – fuse various genres, old and new, so fluently that it becomes increasingly difficult to decide on a fitting descriptor that does the band justice. Serpentyne’s latest effort comprises of contemporary reworkings of British and French folk songs from the 14th and 16th century, along with a handful of original pieces inspired by various historical events or figures. “Myths and Muses” is the band’s second album since forming in 2010, and their best so far.

Coming from London, England, home of any number of established classic rock – and heavy metal bands, Serpentyne combine world music, folk and rock with modern dance beats and uplifting renaissance/medieval music. Describing themselves as “neo-folk-techno-mythic-rock” the band has a bit of everything. The stars of the record are frontwoman Maggie-Beth Sand and multi-instrumentalist Mark Powell. Vocally, Sand is somewhere between Kate Bush, Beck Sian (of UK power metal combo Legend) and German singer Sandra (Enigma). The music combines the stomping power of Swedish folk/rock trio Baskery with the danceable beats of Republica and the folk instrumentation of early The Corrs. All of these elements work in unison, and one never dominates over the other.  Serpentyne is contemporary, folky but also traditionally rocking. It’s a delicate balancing act that Serpentyne pulls off gracefully, and that is testament to the individual – and collective talent of everyone involved with the project.

The ethnic instrumentation, a well-known scourge for lesser talented folk/pagan metal bands the world over, is a plus here as it is used to capture the mood and atmosphere for each of the songs. Never does Serpentyne lower itself to base level crowd pandering, and they rather smartly avoid the genre’s limitation of regressing into drinking songs and Cossacks singing. In fact a lot of the band’s music sounds like a more rock oriented take on what Celtic Women did for poppy choral-classical music. ‘Bouddica (Queen Of the Celts)’ sounds heroic whereas ‘Alexandria’ aims for a more majestic and oriental atmospherical setting. ‘Valkyries’ for the lack of a better description is a Republica song with folk singing and – instrumentation. While at first it may seem as if Serpentyne is combining a few unlikely and unrelated genres into a gimmicky mishmash, the equilibrium between each of the components is what makes the record so listenable.

For its subject matter Serpentyne delve into British and European antiquity/mythology. ‘Bouddica (Queen Of the Celts)’ chronicles the battle campaigns of British warrior queen Boudicea, who presided over the Iceni, a Celtic tribe that warred against the Roman Empire. ‘Alexandria’ is about ancient Egypt’s second largest city. ‘Valkyries’ and ‘Freya’s Firedance’ both detail Scandinavian mythology. The latter being a contemporary interpretation of The Scots Brawle. ‘Gaudete’ (Latin for “rejoice”) is a 16th century christmas carol. ‘Hymn to Cynthia’ is a song about Greek goddess of the moon, Artemis. ‘A Rosebud in June’ is a English folk song whose roots date back to 1904, and that previously was covered by Steeleye Span. ‘Pastyme With Good Company’ is an English folk song written by King Henry VIII shortly after his coronation during the 16th century. Included are also two 14th century French folk songs originally written by Guillaume de Machaut with ‘Je Vivre Liement’ (‘I Should Lead a Happy Life’), ‘Douce Dame Jolie’ (‘Beautiful Sweet Lady’). ‘Les Garçons de la Montagne’ (‘The Boys from Montagne’) is an instrumental that was composed by Sand and Powell and comes with lush French bagpipes and smallpipes. A fitting conclusion to a truly epic folk record.

As impressive as “Myths and Muses” is from a musical and productional point of view, it was apparently released independently through the band’s own Serpentyne Music imprint in both physical and digital format. Given the consistent level of quality, the lush instrumentation, and rich production values it remains puzzling why no established label – pop, folk or otherwise – was interested in giving this album the proper backing it deserves. Additionally music videos where shot for ‘Boudicca (Queen Of the Celts)’, ‘Valkyries’ and ‘Freya’s Firedance’ were shot to give the album the required push. As it stands “Myths and Muses” is a record with tons of cross-genre appeal that would feel equally at home at a folk festival, a rennaissance fair or the Pagan/Heidenfest travelling tour extravaganza. It is doubtful whether this genre will ever appeal to the mainstream popular music scene, but within its niche it’s the best record you’ll hear this year.