(Kill Rock Stars)
If you didn't know better, on first listen you would probably think that Jeff Hanson was a woman. His voice is high-pitched and precise, and he uses inflections that are ordinarily the terrain of the fairer sex. Its initial novelty aside, there is no denying the beauty of his singing, especially when it's matched with the lush orchestration of Madam Owl.
On his two previous albums, Hanson stuck to a more traditional sound, playing drums, bass, and guitar as a one-man band. Owl departs from the modern folk of those albums, opting instead for a more classical feel. It's probably fair to assume that, in the three years since his last record, Hanson's been listening to a lot of Joanna Newsom. Like Newsom, Hanson has rejuvenated his once stripped-down folk by adding string arrangements. Different styles and instrumental combinations are scattered throughout the record, some more effective than others in showcasing Hanson's gender-bending croon. "If Only I Knew" is a back-country banjo foot-tapper with a thumping kick drum pulse; "Careful" is just strings and delicate guitar, reminiscent of Pink Moon–era Nick Drake.
Though pretty, Hanson's voice can be off-putting when left alone to showcase whiny, wispy "oooohs" on the stripped-down tracks "No Never Mine" and "I Don't Quite Remember." The most lively and energetic tunes on Madam Owl—and subsequently the most enjoyable—are the ones with the most instrumentation. The record starts with three such momentous songs before it decelerates into more melancholic territory, never quite regaining steam. Madam Owl is a strong effort that would be superb if only it stayed invigorated where instead it wafts, lingers, and sadly slinks away.