There’s something almost comical about the fact that Family Album, the fourth album from singer-songwriter Lia Ices, begins with a simple, forward piano melody. Her last album, 2014’s Ices, saw the artist take a rather hard left-turn out of the organic, folksy instrumentation of her first two LPs, and land on something much more synthetic, comprising slick grooves, glistening pads, electronic beats, and lots of effects. It was an experiment, and it seems, judging by the first seconds of Family Album, an experiment that Ices is ready to leave behind.
The other funny thing about the opening track “Earthy” is the first line: “I never wanted to sing” beckons Ices, in a bit of a pleading call, as if trying to convince everyone of the fact, including herself. It’s a humorous opening to an album built upon a return to mostly natural instrumentation for a musician known for her pretty, crystalline voice. Over a piano line straight out of an early-70s Joni Mitchell tune, Ices sings, “Another earthly morning / Can hear the mountain yawning,” and we are plunged again into her peculiar lens on the world around us and how it intersects with our own lives, our own loves, our own losses.
Ices has said that this album was largely inspired by her life in California, where she lives with her family near Sonoma valley, up on a mountain, and that is made clear throughout the album in several ways. For one, “Earthy” itself, after about two minutes, introduces some jarring, psychedelic guitars and a slight chorus effect on her voice. That very 70s California-indebted influence peeks through again and again on Family Album, as on the flute- and string-assisted “Anywhere at All” where her voice is duplicated in an eerie echo, and the sunny choruses of “Young on the Mountain”. Electric guitars, swaying drums, and curious sound effects come and go across the album’s nine songs, like wisps of mountain fog.
None of it is any match, though, for Ices’ voice and piano. Her voice has always been one of the key ingredients in selling her songs and separating them from the pool of somewhat alike singer-songwriters. Her tone is bell-like, clear as sunlight, and emotive without ever straining. She powers her way through the atmosphere on “Anywhere At All” with grace. Her voice is yearning and full on songs like “Careful of Love”, where her heavy lead melody meshes well with her higher, lighter harmonies. The way she sings seems to communicate an acknowledgment of life and death, of air and earth, all at once, with ease. The way she can go from gently keening to a full-throated, soulful call, is a thing of beauty.
Family Album may come off a little one-note for those who aren’t particularly interested in Ices’ style, but if you give the album the attention it needs, it reveals bountiful details, surprises, and moving moments. It’s catchy sometimes, and somber and slow other times. It’s also such a delight to hear Ices back at the piano, evidenced best by the staggeringly gorgeous and spare title track. Her knack for melody and creating a very specific sound with such a familiar arsenal of tools is on full display, perhaps more than ever on this album, which is also her most collaborative work, full of guests who come and go and lend only the most graceful additions to the songs.
This is a tight 41 minutes of music, nary a hair out of place. Most of all, though, Family Album is a generous document of love, family, friendship, and respect for the world around us, and those themes operate in a way that allows them to permeate these songs subtly; there if you want to find them.