Artist: Michelle Cross
Title: Adventures from the Ocean of the Dead
Release Date: 2015 June 9
Genre: Pop Rock
License: CC BY-NC-ND
Label: Area 44 Music
Michelle Cross is a Chicago based composer, pianist and vocalist. Adventures from the Ocean of the Dead is her third release, and the most ambitious to date. This album does something very special for me. Actually, not just one thing, but several very special things for me. However, there are flaws in the execution of this release.
Adventures from the Ocean of the Dead
Michelle Cross came to my attention when she worked with Joe Frawley on several releases, including Dolls Come To Life and several of Joe’s releases (A Hundred Years, Satyrinae, and A Week of Fevers). I was happy to find that she had several releases of her own, and seems to be building a pretty good following (at least from the videos I found on YouTube).
The first thing that made me extremely happy about this recording is that it is a complete story. It’s not just impressions, it’s not a collection of songs that might be the soundtrack to a story. It’s a complete story on it’s own. In this age of playlists and so many one-off songs, it’s nice to find an artist that is still conceiving works that have a complete structure from beginning to end. It might be out of fashion, but there are those of us who still appreciate this art form.
However, there is a bit of a drawback to this style of work (and it’s once of the reasons it took me a while to write about it): you have to read the notes that go with the recording. If you don’t, you won’t get the full experience of the story. Plus, you will miss out on the exceptional artwork that Michelle Cross created to with each of the songs, which itself is a rare bonus these days.
Another thing that just delights me in listening to this work: the way themes and ideas are developed musically. The compositions on this recording are mature and well developed. I haven’t heard this level of musicality in a pop recording since the early Tori Amos recordings (Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink come to my mind). I have missed having artists that add this level of work to my collection for some time.
Having said these things, there are few issues with this work that I believe are worth talking about. First, the story seems to be crammed full of characters to carry small portions of the plot forward. For example, Pirate Zola and The Empress of the Sea are given a single song to perform an important plot point, and yet they are short-changed as they are not fully developed. They are presented for one song, and then discarded never to be heard from again.
Then there are points about the main characters that could have been developed a lot more. For example, Jesiah King is presented as a good man throughout most of the story, and yet he is the character that steals the key to Toulouse’s treasure. Why? What was the driving force that made a good man do something that could be seen as being against his character? (I’ve imagined a number of reasons and scenarios, but I won’t elaborate on them.) Also, what of Toulouse himself? We are lead to believe that he is the captain of a ship, a simple trader who makes a bad choice in route with disastrous results. We aren’t lead to believe there is something more to his character until King reveals that he stole the key. And later, we find out something about his ship that suggests there was more to the character than we knew about.
And where there are stories or sub-plots that could (and probably should) have been developed more, there are some things that seem gratuitous and unnecessary. For example, the mermaid’s story serves as back-fill for a sub-plot that was never presented. And Peter’s “like father, like son” decision doesn’t come across as genuine as we don’t have much of Peter’s reaction to the stories Quelch is telling. IMO, there are things that could have been better handled here: Quelch’s journey after retrieving the treasure, what happened to the treasure (Quelch doesn’t give any of it to Jesiah’s widow…did he have it with him? Did he keep it for himself? etc.)
That being said, there are some songs that just resonate deeply on this album. For example, :Life is a Game, is all about how unfair things can be, how the odds can be stacked against you, and yet you can still win. Ocean of the Dead is all about spending our lives searching for something, and how it’s the search that is the thing that is important, and not the finding of them (ie, it’s about the journey, not about the destination).
The fact is, I could go back and forth on both positive aspects of this album, and it’s shortcomings for quite a bit. I think think this comes down to how I feel about listening to opera: frequently I find the adaptation of a libretto to a musical setting to be un-satisfactory. Often the work the libretto is based on has a lot of details that needed to be cut to fit within the music. Other times, I find the music is insufficient to communicating what is in the libretto.
That isn’t to say that Adventures from the Ocean of the Dead should be compared to an opera. If anything the balance between the music and lyrical content is excellent. I think I will just always find things that I can fault in a work like this. In the case of this work, I think either some of the sub-plots could have been removed from this release, or it could have been expanded to allow the room to develop some of the characters, and cover some of the plot points that have been short-changed.
Despite what might appear to be a lot of misgivings about Adventures from the Ocean of the Dead, I am giving it a 9/10 rating. The solid music, arrangements, and beauty of many of these songs outweigh the issues I have with the narrative elements of this release. Add to it the excellent art work, and the ambition of composing and recording a work of this magnitude and I feel the rating is justified. I hope Michelle keeps challenging her listeners with works of this scale. I know I will be anticipating and eagerly listening to whatever she produces next.