Sixpence None the Richer, Lost in Transition
With 10 years separating this album from its predecessor, Sixpence None the Richer hasn't so much picked up where it left off as leapfrogged into a new space. True, Matt Slocum still embroiders joyous jangle on his guitar, and Leigh Nash sings with diaphanous sparkle to set hearts aflutter. Yet 10 of the 12 songs on Transition clock in at less than four minutes, giving the album a brisk clip, and Jim Scott's masterful production results in a full, vibrant sound that's short on frills and high on octane – in some cases, literally. "My Dear Machine" salutes a rusted-out car; sassy horns spike this song in counterpoint to its full-gallop beat, making for an album opener that's the diametric opposite of the languid "We Have Forgotten," which kicked off 1997's Sixpence.
Transition soars on the wings of spot-on songwriting and artistic assertiveness: Tender moments never go mushy, and strong ones never descend into overkill. "Don't Blame Yourself" may rank as the most upbeat, joyous a slice of pop sustenance Sixpence has ever rendered; the song provides chiming response to the lament that precedes it, "Failure." With a snare drum that sounds as though smothered in sackcloth, the song paces with caged-panther menace while the lyric rolls in the ashes of defeat. "I fail to make it," Nash intones over and over, until the music abandons her, leaving only her voice stripped bare.
Weak moments are few. The opening to "Stand My Ground" is so wispy that it doesn't give enough foundation for Nash's voice, making her sound as though she's a tad off-key. And as might be true of any disc by a band with one lead singer, Transition begs for more moments of vocal surprise, either through unusual sonic treatments, or surprising harmony texture and counterpoint.
Yet if Nash and Slocum lean towards minimalism, it's the right call. Transition's refreshing lack of gloss gives it a crisp quality where the pianos, guitar arpeggios and vocal melodies pulse with warmth and life, without any goop to get in the way. And it's no exaggeration to say this album holds and grabs the listener from start to finish, without any let up or emotional letdowns – right down to the final, breathless syllable of "Be OK," a song of domestic discord. Nash repeats "OK" into the void, sounding anything but: Her last gasp yields a shivery moment of contradiction that slaps the listener back to reality as the disc ends. Is Sixpence back? Oh, yeah.
A former senior writer at CCM and Chicago Tribune music critic, Louis R. Carlozo is a Chicago-based music producer and the co-owner of Kingsize Sound Labs recording studio.
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