Album Review: Annabel (Lee) - I Came Across A Dreamer (EP)

Arriving roughly a year after their sophomore full length, The Cleansing, and, like, six months after the From This Side EP, the husband and wife duo of Richard and Sheila Ellis—operating under the moniker of Annabel (Lee), have returned with I Came Across A Dreamer, a beautifully constructed and evocative three song EP that finds the Ellis’ bridging the gap between the post-Portishead, unnerving, hazy atmospheres of their arresting debut, By The Sea, and the more acoustic jazz sound found on their most recent efforts.

The press materials for I Came Across A Dreamer refers to the effort as ‘noir jazz,’ which is, I suppose, a pretty accurate way to describe the sound, with the Ellis’ working to balance the tension and release between the soothing and the disconcerting.

You can hear that balance right away in the EP’s opening piece, “Circles.” It’s structured around a strong rhythm from an upright bass, that more or less powers the whole song forward, with eventual woodwinds swirling around alongside very jazzy saxophone flourishes from Jake Telford, as well as additional atmospheric noises to set the mood, and a very intricate piano chord sound that serves as a direct connection, sonically speaking, to the Ellis’ By The Sea aesthetic, comes in and out, echoing into the ether by oscillating back and forth between the left and right channels.

Musically, everything tumbles together gorgeously—and of the three tracks featured on the EP, “Circles” is by far the most infectious and accessible, as it swoons along, creating a hypnotic environment for Sheila Ellis’ otherworldly, commanding voice to come in clearly, powerfully, and hauntingly—floating just above it all.

Ellis’ voice is the kind of thing you certainly do not hear every day in 2018—the kind of voice that harkens back to a totally different era, exuding eloquence and grace, as well as an impressive balance between something borderline sultry or sensual, and something unnerving.

As I Came Across A Dreamer continues, its second track, “Glow,” taps into that aforementioned aesthetic from the duo’s first album as Annabel (Lee), 2015’s By The Sea—only here, rather than using trip-hop leaning beats and instrumentation, the Ellis’ rely on brushed, jazzy live percussion, and a noir-ish piano arrangement that helps give the song that additional layer of mystery.

The EP concludes with “Lovers’ Wings,” which is the most straight forward of the trio—as well as possibly the most straight forward song that the Ellis’ have released thus far, falling into what can only be called a traditional acoustic jazz sound. It’s also the EP’s shortest track, breezing in just as suddenly and surprisingly as it concludes a mere two minutes later. It also finds Sheila Ellis singing lyrics that are a sharp contrast from the content that has made up previous Annabel (Lee) albums—specifically on By The Sea, which is steeped in heavy imagery and allusions to Edgar Allen Poe.
Kiss me one more time—there’s no such thing as too much displays,” Ellis sings in the song’s opening line, allowing the words to bounce along playfully with the song’s rhythm.

In reading the fine print from the press materials about I Came Across A Dreamer, it’s interesting to note that these songs were apparently assembled from recordings that predate both of the Ellis’ full length releases—a fact that, I suppose, is why these three songs work so well at bridging the space between the lighthearted and the ominous works of Annabel (Lee)—they were recorded, at least partially, before the duo struck out toward one specific direction, then began heading in the other.

Longtime fans of Richard and Shelia Ellis’ work as Annabel (Lee) will enjoy the short trip back into the duo’s past that I Came Across A Dreamer offers, and for new listeners, the EP’s brevity and surprisingly diverse soundscapes create a relatively easy point of access to being your journey into their body of work. It is an all too short collection of songs—just as you’re getting into, it’s over—but never the less, it is still a captivating and surprising release.

I Came Across A Dreamer is out now as a digital EP from Youngbloods.