Album Review: Annabel (lee) - The Cleansing

There was an enormous amount of mystique surrounding By The Sea…and other solitary places, the 2015 debut from the enigmatic outfit Annabel (lee.) Over time, however, the duo responsible for it have slowly brushed away a little bit of that mystery, culminating in their second effort, The Cleansing—an affair that finds them stripping away some of the more ethereal and unsettling elements from their sound, making for a much more accessible listening experience.

The original conceit of Annabel (lee)’s sound, at least when speaking of By The Sea was ‘Portishead meets Nick Drake’—a combination that on paper, could either be really incredible, or a gigantic train wreck. The duo was able to pull it off almost flawlessly, blending together the early 1990s trip-hop sound with the melancholic and acoustic folk stylings of Drake and his peers. The Cleansing does away with a majority of those trip-hop influenced sounds, and focuses itself on more acoustic arrangements, with the occasional spooky sound tossed in. This drastic change in dynamics humanizes the album, as well as the two responsible for it.

By The Sea came off as the kind of album that couldn’t have been made in 2015—it sounded so ancient and crumbling and haunted, like it was a field recording made in a graveyard somewhere. In contrast, The Cleansing does sound like the kind of record that could be made today, in 2017, by the husband and wife team of jazz guitarist Richard Ellis, and his wife Sheila, an actress and singer.

Before switching gears and becoming acoustically driven, The Cleansing opens within similar territory, and finds Sheila Ellis delivering a chilling reading of a poem that arrives as a bit of a response to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”—and yes it is his poem and imagery that the duo has taken its name and inspiration from. Ellis gives a stirring, haunting performance, with her words floating over the top of a collage of creeping samples—reminiscent of Broadcast’s work with The Focus Group.

Built around Richard Ellis’ hypnotic acoustic guitar string plucking, “Move With Me” is a stellar example of how the duo is able to do so much with so little—even though they’ve drawn back the curtain and are relying on less, sonically speaking, what Richard and Sheila have created on The Cleansing is still just as evocative. “Move With Me” swoons and sways, capturing the listener in its warm embrace, and even the Bossa Nova influenced “Paris, Room 14” still manages to slip into ethereal moments as Sheila allows her voice to circle around in a cavernous echo at different points in the song.

Despite its haunting cover art, and the occasional spooky, unsettling instance, The Cleansing is, by all accounts, an ‘autumn’ record—balancing both a fleeting warmth and an oncoming chill, which the couple work to juxtapose throughout the remainder of the album by slipping into that eerie cold on the mysterious and menacing titular track, as well as with the inclusion of sweeping, somber strings on “See Her”—both songs wind up capturing that tension found from the first record; while “Far” finds the couple working within a steady acoustic shuffle, settling into a surprising groove.

The album closes the lengthy, gorgeous, and fittingly titled “Autumn Requiem,” a song that bridges the gap between both sounds. It’s based around a rather lush sounding orchestral arrangement that runs throughout, allowing Sheila Ellis’ voice to effortlessly drift on a layer just above, creating a truly captivating, otherworldly conclusion.

While it is a surprising follow up to By The Sea, The Cleansing is also a worthy second outing for Richard and Sheila Ellis. By softening the duo’s palate, this collection of eight songs is less intimidating (as a whole) than its predecessor, but it still manages to remain poised between Annabel (lee)’s two main sonic influences, making for a fascinating and inviting listen.

The Cleansing is out now, digitally, via Youngbloods; the vinyl edition of the album will begin shipping in November.