A Fine Frenzy still stuck in the ‘Birdcage’

Alison Sudol, lead singer of A Fine Frenzy, deserves some credit for her band’s second album, “Bomb in a Birdcage” (2009), but she doesn’t deserve much. At 24, Sudol is the founder and musical powerhouse behind A Fine Frenzy. Her band has released two albums in the last two years, but that’s not impressive enough to get listeners to overlook the fact that she’s still thinking inside the box.

As a female singer-songwriter-pianist (what else is new?), Sudol’s play-it-safe, keep-it-light music fails to put her on the same level as her contemporaries. She’s Sara Bareilles with more vocal flexibility, Ingrid Michealson with less personality, Jewel with more accessible poetry, and, at the end of the day, she isn’t quite as memorable as any of them.

Sudol is a quiet girl whom you won’t find in the tabloids. She’s a nerdy redhead who graduated from high school two years early and writes songs one would expect of an English major. Even the name of her band is from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1596).

While Sudol’s lyrics and music videos can occasionally be overly sticky-sweet, she often comes up with beautiful, unique poetry that holds up well to multiple listenings, as in “Elements” off of her new album. She writes, “You show up like a hurricane / all hungry-eyed and weather-stained / The clock forgets to tick and I the same.”

The subject matter on her sophomore album is considerably more varied than that of her first, in which most songs covered the same bittersweet topic of love lost, but the music hasn’t changed enough to support the wider range of emotional material. In “Elements,” Sudol sings “No you can’t come in” on repeat, but the force behind these words is completely lost in the breathy sweetness of the vocal melody and the background accompaniment. Sudol can write angst-ridden lyrics but is apparently unable to complement them with darker melodies.

That isn’t to say that Sudol fails as a musician. “Bomb in a Birdcage” is more musically creative, interesting, diverse and experimental than “One Cell in the Sea” (2007), though that’s not saying much. The songs on her first album used the same three instruments and rotated through the same five chords, each song barely distinguishable from the other ones. “Bomb in a Birdcage” offers a refreshing blend of tracks, half of which strongly hearken back to her first album and half of which show that the band is taking a different direction.

All of the best things about the new album are showcased in its third single “Electric Twist,” which is far and away the best track. It starts off simply with just a muted electric guitar bouncing back and forth between two chords, strumming off a head-bobbing, catchy rhythm while the sparse vocal line plops itself down on top. There’s a great build across the song’s four-and-a-half minutes as well as a chorus with a great hook and some funky chords. Unexpected but intriguing breakdowns keep the song interesting until the last minute or so, which frankly could have been chopped off.

This track, as well as “What I Wouldn’t Do” and “Stood Up” are the ones that really depart from the style A Fine Frenzy established with their first album, and this departure is stimulating. For the most part, Sudol is still a timid songwriter, afraid of stepping too far outside her comfort zone of singsongy and cute. But if her next album is even less timid than “Bomb in a Birdcage,” A Fine Frenzy will be on their way to establishing a recognizable and innovative style.