Lia Ices is a name that sticks. It’s so unconventional, yet familiar and fascinating that when it’s being bandied about or peppered into conversation that you’re almost driven to find out exactly who this person is. The first time I heard of Lia Ices was when she signed to Jagjaguwar some months ago in preparation for her second album, the freshly released “Grown Unknown”. Generally, Jagjaguwar has a strong stable of artists, which only provided more evidence as to why she is worthy of attention. But essentially it was the name that drew me in, as a good band name also does. I found myself repeating Lia Ices over and over again at random times until listening to her album was no longer an option but rather something I HAD to do. Seeing her live a couple weeks ago only added fuel to that fire, and during her set she played the majority of the new record, which she was also selling that night a couple weeks in advance of the official retail date. Two weeks and a bunch of listens later, here we are. Let’s talk some “Grown Unknown”.
The first thing you come to realize as the opening track “Love Is Won” drifts into your ears is that Lia Ices is most definitely more than a name – she is, above all else, a voice. And what a voice it is: soft but strong, equal parts thrilling and heartbreaking. It’s thanks to those pipes that Ices truly distinguishes herself from her peers, though on occasion she does bring to mind some of the greats – your Tori Amoses, your Leslie Feists, your Chan “Cat Power” Marshalls, and your Joanna Newsoms. Between her range and the ways her singing is utilized, moving from normal to echo-affected to multi-part harmonized with itself, she’s always exceptional even when there might be a little something off in the backing melody. The instruments are all standard fare for a female singer-songwriter sort, ranging from your normal piano/guitar/drums setup through bits of string sections, a bit of brass, and most remarkably – snaps and handclaps. These other instruments are less significant than the woman herself, but without their primarily sparse and careful backing the songs on “Grown Unknown” would certainly lose some emotional heft and eclecticism.
Certainly one of the benefits of being signed to Jagjaguwar has to be some of the resources made available to you. While the production values are probably a little higher than her debut, the biggest score Ices makes for “Grown Unknown” has to be a guest spot from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame. His backing vocal on the track “Daphne” is a big part of what helps push the lush strings-and-acoustic-guitar track to a higher, more exceptional level. “Little Marriage” is cute just like a small white chapel, mixing organ-keyboard textures with some toy piano/xylophone and the jingle of car keys/finger snaps for percussion. Similarly, the title track begins with only a collection of handclaps and Ices’s somber singing before a gorgeous acoustic guitar takes over for what might amount to a chorus. Some lighter and deftly paced violins combine with the guitar and handclaps for the last minute of the song, bringing it to a rather enticing and gorgeous conclusion. Autoharp and military-style percussion meet for “After Is Always Before”, a song best recognized for its intense vocal harmonies and deep but minimal piano melody. “Ice Wine” and “Lilac” seem to be indebted to Cat Power and Feist respectively, though the strong violin presence helps to distinguish the former and the quiet creeping in of instruments sets the latter apart. Closing track “New Myth” sends the record out on a seriously winning note, with Ices firing on all cylinders. It’s not only one of her best vocal performances, but the horns and woodwinds are the exact right kind of subtle so as to provide a stellar assist rather than running away with the melody. There’s not much of a better way to end an album such as this one.
While there’s a lot of positive things to say about “Grown Unknown” and more than enough logic to determine just what the people at Jagjaguwar saw in her to hand her a deal, the album is not without its faults. The pacing of the record is rather glacial, in that there’s barely anything that reaches the mid-tempo range, and that’s at best. Really it does a lot of slow drifting and sounding gorgeous but not a whole lot beyond that. Lia Ices isn’t exactly looking to become a pop star, but an energetic track or two might do her well to break up the monotony of slow song after slower song. The other small issue is with her voice, which as I’ve already mentioned is pretty much the best thing she has going. There are a couple small moments on the album where either by the way she sings something or just the general phrasing of it, she sounds disingenuous to herself. Either she’s mimicking another artist or her emotional goes from hot to cold. In these couple moments when there’s supposed to be warmth and breadth and honesty, we get disaffection or disconnection instead. Perhaps that’s why her last name is Ices. Interestingly enough as well, “Grown Unknown” is a record best experienced during the coldest months of the year, though its presence is more like a lone blossomed flower poking out from a snow-covered field. If you’re not yet paying attention to Lia Ices, this album is a great place to start. She’s much more than just a cool name.