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Haley Bonar - The Size of Planets

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Artist: Haley Bonar

Album: The Size of Planets

Label: Chairkickers' Union Music

Review date: Apr. 20, 2003

By the Shores of Lake Superior

Sometimes, a voice is enough. Or more than enough, it can be everything. Even Bob Dylan, with his horrible, beautiful singing, depended on his voice. Although his lyrics primarily brought him his acclaim, it seems important that he sang them in the way he did. His voice could have been beautiful, but he chose to sing in a more honest, unique way that placed more attention on those words and created a wonderful tension in his music. At the other end of the spectrum are Low, a band of fine songwriters who would probably be just as famous if they sang from the phonebook, such is their gift for stunningly beautiful harmonies.

Dylan and Low are important references for Haley Bonar's music, as they reflect the two poles of her songwriting and singing, and because they both come from Duluth. It's hard to associate Dylan with this aging port town on the shores of Lake Superior, but it's where the man grew up, and it stayed with him, even as he took to New York and conquered the world. Low, by contrast, have remained in Duluth and let the world come to them.

The push and pull of geographical ambivalence is also apparent in Bonar's debut, The Size of Planets, an album deeply concerned with the confusion and conflicting emotions of life in general, but life especially in a place like Duluth, beautiful and engaging but also fading, unsure of what to do with itself. Dylan saw the paint peeling on the sides of houses and took east; Low thought it might be better to stick around, raise a kid, and contribute to the music scene. Bonar still resides in Duluth, and the release of her album is a testament to Low's decision to remain in the city: it's being released by Alan Sparhawk's Chairkicker's Music label, and Bonar has recently joined Low on tour.

A first listen to Planets makes clear what piqued Sparhawk's interest. Bonar possesses a voice that makes you sit down and listen, a voice that would make beautiful music no matter what she was singing. Amazingly, though, Bonar's voice is matched with a wit and gift for observation that are rare among any songwriter, let alone one that has yet to turn twenty. Her songs touch on regret, loneliness, and many, repeated attempts to correct these emotions with alcohol. The experiences told through these songs are common and very human, and transformed into something extraordinary through the simplicity and power of her performance.

Her sound is, basically, familiar. The guitars are usually acoustic, although keyboards and beautifully recorded pianos surface throughout. However, she manages to move effortlessly beyond girl-with-a-guitar clichés through the consistent innovation in her songwriting and the freshness of her approach. "Drinking Again" is a prime example, as it covers what its title suggests, the relentless, pointless act of drinking away one's troubles. In someone else's hands, it could have been a bland folk song, or entirely heavy-handed, but Bonar's voice possesses a wryness that undercuts the essential sadness of the song, making it far more rich and interesting. There's humor all over the album, but there are also a number of songs that are capable of real, deeply felt emotion, such as "Go Away Angels", a slow, sad lament about hope and hopelessness.

Without indulging in overstatement or hyperbole, Bonar is a truly exciting find, and someone who seems destined to break into a much broader audience. Her songs draw from familiar genres, but she makes the kind of music that sounds remarkably original despite its recognizable past. One hopes that as the world beckons, she manages to maintain the perspective and sensibility that has brought her this far; she is a songwriter and performer of potential greatness, one to put another feather in the cap of the fine city of Duluth.

By Jason Dungan

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