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Of all the Charlottesville musicians of the past few years, Mariana Bell has chosen the steepest path. Genre be damned, she takes a major portion of Book into the musical battlefield of mainstream pop (already having proven her worth as singer/songwriter), a place where more than a few million albums have been held under until pronounced dead. Perhaps calculated success, slim though chances may be, is preferable to swimming with the singer/songwriter fishes; perhaps she just sings them as she hears them. Regardless, she places herself amidst the piranhas of musical acceptance, the critics, and we all know how they relish a chance to shred anything remotely resembling a Top 40 hit.

Any critic who attempts to shred Book is on a fool's mission. It has been six years since Bell's fine solo effort Dream of Italy was released, three since her self-titled four track EP, Mariana Bell--- forever in music land--- and Bell did not sit idle. Whereas Dream comes straight from the singer/songwriter, the EP broke that mold. A new Mariana Bell emerged with four new songs. Sure, Jeremy, could have been a leftover from the Dream sessions, having that light, folky flavor (with just a tinge of jazz), but the other three were a huge step forward. Those three, in fact, have been either completely re-recorded or at least remixed for Book. Clumsy, with slight Italian-flavored acoustic riff, is an oddity in that verse contrasts with chorus in style and feel and yet belong together, verse setting up the powerful full-band-with-background-vocals of the chorus. While it mirrors the EP version, the production on Book is a step up (and a half). Slow and dreamlike, Scene from the Movie, also mirroring the EP, is only one highlight of an album full of highlights, orchestra effect a perfect background to Bell's outstanding vocal performance. It sounds like it is from a movie, in fact, background vocals having that forties or fifties soundtrack aura.

The third redone track, Vietnam, is something else altogether. The EP version starts with percussive effects reminiscent of explosions on a distant battlefield and slowly fades into the song. On Book, the explosions are gone, replaced by a musical despondency which builds as reverbed and echoed guitar or synthesizer float over a light march-cadence snare drum. It's a head rush every time they hit the chorus in a crescendo of emotion, and the bridge doubles it. When it fades to black at 5:38, you think it's done but sound effects fade in at 6:00 and Bell codas with a haunting and heartrending ending (evidently titled I-70). It's like a scene from a movie...

If there is anything left like the Top 40 these days, both Book and Bad Today have the flavor, pop gems of the major department store TV ad variety, and I don't say that disparagingly. TV ads, for better or worse, have turned me onto artists who would have slipped by unnoticed, a few still on my regular playlist. And I'll Take Half is one of those folk gems which transcend the genre, cello and production helping take it beyond, and when the chorus at the end takes it home, it is perfect.

I fluctuate between favorites here, but I have to give special mention to Waited. This, I understand, is what they call shoegaze and I have to tell you that if it is, I am in. I have only one album of music like this, from a group out of England called SOMA, whose Black Rock City Star has lulled me to sleep on the occasional bad night. Bell nails it here, spacey synthesizers, guitar and violins (Dina Maccabee, I love you for it) carrying the tune to the end.

It would hardly be fair to praise the album without pointing to the main producers, Alex Wong and Andrew Kapner, who work out of Angelhouse Studio East & West (L.A. and NYC). You don't get sounds like this without sweating over the boards. As good as the sound is here, they sweated buckets.

In this case, the only difference between the typical singer/songwriter songs and the mainstream pop songs is production. With Wong and Kapner's wizardry at the console, Bell has leapfrogged to the head of the pop pack as far as I'm concerned. You can hear for yourself on the official Mariana Bell website or you can skip the amenities and head straight to cdBaby to listen, though the samples are shorter. Just click on the links provided earlier in the review. You won't be sorry.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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