Norine Braun – Conventus The Eye of the Heart
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Record Label: Unsigned
The most fascinating thing about “Lightning Strikes Twice,” the opening track from singer/songwriter Norine Braun’s new, roots-laden rock project, Conventus The Eye of the Heart, is not Braun’s scattershot, free-spirited vocal, nor is it the religious imagery that covers her lyrics. No, the anchor for “Lightning Strikes Twice” is the dynamic instrumentation, which has a wonderfully self-contained improvisational feel. From tinkling pianos to a freewheeling electric guitar, all the way to the explosive harmonica, which dominates the track with a train-whistle-like aesthetic, the band knocks this arrangement out of the park and effectively steals the show from the top-billing solo artist this album is written by. More or less, the band upstaging Braun is a theme for the rest of this enjoyable but unspectacular classic rock album.
That’s not to say Braun is a weak link in these songs. Her deep, husky voice falls somewhere between Patti Smith and Fiona Apple, and that combination works perfectly on tracks like the Prince-esque jazz fusion tango that is “Dizzy.” On the other hand, Braun’s sultry instrument isn’t quite as well-suited to folky, alt-country tracks like “Boy,” where her confident, bombastic vocal styling robs the arrangement of its lilting subtlety. Curiously, Conventus is essentially split down the middle between souful pop-funk and rootsy southern folk rock. On the funkier tracks, like the biting occupy anthem that is “99%,” the two styles collide quite convincingly, with the mournful harmonica joining with vinyl cracks, 1920s nightclub piano, and blistering jazz guitar for a convincing, sexy, and vehemently political highlight.
More often, however, Braun allows the dichotomy between her two styles to exist as is, which results in two things. First, Conventus ends up being a jarring listen, without much sense of cohesive flow to speak of, but enough good songs to make the journey worth taking nonetheless. Second, it means that the album is split between tracks where Braun rules the roost and songs where her band takes precedent over her. That’s both a good and bad thing, good because it means almost every track has something great going on, but bad because it means Conventu is frequently just okay andonly fleetingly great. Songs like “Take the Sleek Train,” with a meandering falsetto vocal from Braun, never seem to go anywhere, but the wall of acoustic instrumentation, cut across by haunting ambient sounds and yet another star-crossed harmonica solo, is as lush and beautiful as musical beds on singer/songwriter records ever are.
Another moment of success, the sultry, searing “Fire Flames,” which doubles Braun’s vocal with a guitarist who more or less solos his way through the entire song, hints at what Conventus might have been if Braun had gotten a better lockdown on what she wanted with this album. Like her idols—Apple, Smith, other powerful female singer/songwriters like k.d. Lang or Sade—Braun does best with dark, mysterious, melodically-challenging songs. Her smoky, suggestive voice simply wasn’t made for anthemic pop songs or sentimental folk. She’s neither Adele nor Patty Griffin, nor is she especially at home with the bizarre left-turn that is the album’s closing track, a electro-pop-tinged, Eurythmics-esque song called “Conventus.” But when Braun gets a full-bodied track of dark, sultry jazz, tasteful funk, or blazing rock ‘n’ roll, her confidence and skill as a performer really shows through. It’s not hard to imagine her live show being a revelation, and while this record is inconsistent and occasionally too indulgent for its own good, the best songs—gems like “99%” and “Lightning Strikes Twice”—still posit her as an artist to watch.