Lia Ices – Finding the Gem

I don’t remember exactly how or when I came across Lia Ices’ song Daphne, but I haven’t forgotten it since.

The second song off her 2011 album Grown Unknown features a surprising and enjoyable blend of instruments and styles. It starts with a string arrangement that somehow reminds me of Tan Dun’s soundtrack to the 2002 martial arts film Hero, and follows this up with a singular acoustic guitar accompanying a light angelic voice, sending shivers down my spine with its nimble switches between chest voice and falsetto.

Around the 2 minute mark, the song descends into something more ambient. Lyrics disappear, vocals are looped and layered, and out of the mix we hear a new, more familiar voice. With intense delight I realize the backing vocals are performed by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon; not a bad pick for a duet partner. The song takes yet another unexpected turn with the inclusion of a slow drum beat and some flashes of an electric guitar. When the ambient voices are once again replaced with lyrics, the song hardly resembles how it sounded at the start. In short, the song is layered and surprising; immediately compelling me to run off to hear the rest of the album. The other songs on the album, however, left a different impression.

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Though Lia Ices’ collaboration with Justin Vernon back in 2011 did attract attention, what really put her on the radar was her song Love Is Won after it was used in the second season of HBO’s hit series Girls. Love Is Won is more characteristic of the album Grown Unknown. It is generally more minimal in tone, less volatile, and the lingering atmosphere hinges mostly on how Lia’s voice is left to reverberate in a minimalist and empty landscape. Though her singing voice is undeniably beautiful, the song doesn’t display the same range and control as Daphne. Love Is Won and most of the other songs on Grown Unknown feel less adventurous, and ultimately, they failed to grab me emotionally. That being said, the album definitely isn’t without merit. There is a unique and slightly eerie quality to it, and the arrangement of different instruments still create some versatility in tone throughout. The album is a pleasant listen, but it didn’t quite lived up to my expectations.

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September 2014 saw the release of Lia’s 3rd studio album, Ices. This was an exciting prospect. What kind of development would it demonstrate? Could it live up to the potential I had heard back in 2011? The overall sound in Ices certainly is different. The tracks are more electronic, and often make use of abnormal sound effects and alterations of Lia’s voice. What has remained is the signature minimal and empty feel to the songs. Even with her new electronic touches, I felt Lia’s songs left a lot of space for her voice to echo around in. Sadly, I couldn’t help but feel emotionally removed from the songs once again. If anything, Lia Ices had moved further away from the sound I was hoping she would deliver.

However, after listening more closely another time after, something changed. When the second song Thousand Eyes came on, I found myself bobbing my head along to it. The songs started to resonate with me as it gained familiarity, and I started relishing in the subtle melodies and arrangements of the songs that hadn’t been audible to me at first. Lia has cited various inspirations for the album, from Pakistani pop to dub, and it is clear that the atmosphere she created was not an accident. Credit must be given to Lia for keeping her songs subtle and her melodies unusual, such as the high melody in the chorus of Higher, or in the strange warping of her voice in Electric Arc.

Lia Ices’ development from Grown Unknown to Ices makes it clear that her musical ambitions are different from what I was hoping for. Perhaps I am just too much of a Bon Iver fan, and should stop demanding a similar sound from everyone who comes close to it. Nevertheless, Daphne’s blend between Justin Vernon’s style with that of Lia Ices is still fantastic to hear, and I wouldn’t mind witnessing another collaboration some time in the future. (Hint!)

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