Music Review: Whisper House

Whisper House, from Duncan SheikI’m probably not the best person to review concept albums.  I have a hard time following storylines on concept albums (like Alice Cooper’s “Along Came A Spider”) and end up having to read all sorts of stuff to try and figure out how the songs play into the storyline.  I guess I like it when the songs explicitly spell out the storyline for me, but that, I’d imagine, would make for some pretty crappy stories.

That being said, I really enjoyed “Whisper House,” even if I wasn’t exactly following the storyline.

Just to remind you guys of what “Whisper House” is all about,

WHISPER HOUSE is set in 1942 at a rickety old lighthouse on the New England coast. The protagonist is eleven-year-old Christopher, an imaginative but melancholy child whose father recently died in the war. While his mother copes with her grief, Christopher is sent to live with an aunt he’s never met: Lilly, the reclusive woman who serves as the keeper of this remote lighthouse. It doesn’t take long for Christopher to realize his aunt has little experience with or patience for children. To make matters worse, the lighthouse is also home to Yasujiro, a Japanese immigrant who works for Lilly and whom Christopher suspects may be a spy.

Soon after his arrival, Christopher worries that his new home may be haunted – and, in fact, it is. The story is presided over by a band of ghosts that only Christopher can see. They serve as a spectral Greek chorus: only singing, never speaking. The ghosts are the only people in the show who sing. They represent Christopher’s subconscious thoughts, articulating his fears and doubts with a cheerfully macabre wit. Using the ghosts as a chorus, like this, also provided an opportunity to approach the musical theater form from a slightly different angle-we looked back to Brecht for inspiration and chose to have the music stand separate from and as commentary on the action.

My full review after the jump!

Following along in the book helped me understand the storyline a little better – though not everything is explicitly spelled out, it helped give a deeper meaning to the songs that I didn’t realize at first listen.  Which makes sense, given that it’s supposed to have theatrical accompaniment.  Duncan Sheik’s voice is as strong as ever – if you’re not familiar with his poppy stuff, this isn’t entirely indicative of it, but the album does show his strength as a songwriter, and actually has some phenomenal songs that, play or not, you’ll find yourself listening to over and over.  The addition of female singer Holly Brook, who actually has lead vocals on one of the songs, is really welcome.  Her voice is really pretty and works well in contrast with Sheik’s.  Never heard of her before?  Well, Fort Minor’s “Where’d You Go?” features her on the chorus, and was actually probably the best part of that song.

When I read a CD review, I really like to hear the opinion of every track, so here’s my track-by-track review.  Warning – some pretty decent spoilers.

It’s kind of odd to start a CD off with a song titled It’s Better to be Dead, but, given some of the macabre imagery and storylines running through the CD, it’s pretty interesting that It’s Better to be Dead is the song that introduces all of the characters of the show and how, well, their lives would probably be less painful if they were just dead.  You get all the info here – we’re in the times of WWII.  Lilly keeps the lighthouse, and is kind of a lonely b*tch.  The Sherriff (Charles) is kind of a weird dude, apparently, but isn’t really a big part of the show.  Yasuhiro from Japan is searching for redemption in America, and works for Lilly at the lighthouse.  Christopher is the main character – his father died in WWII, his mom went a little nuts, and he’s come to live with his aunt.  The trauma of losing his father is causing him to have visions – are the ghosts he sees in the lighthouse real?

Art from the Whispering House bookWe’re Here to Tell You, I’m assuming, is how the ghosts introduce themselves to Christopher.  It’s actually a pretty catchy song with a really good beat – obviously the lyrics would confuse anyone not familiar with the storyline, but it “sounds” like a radio single.  what I like most about listening to this on CD first, rather than on stage, is that I can clearly make out the lyrics and the songwriting is excellent.  The imagery is morbid and creepy, despite what the upbeat music would lead you to believe.

And Now We Sing is sung entirely by Holly Brook, and, is about how the ghosts, well, became ghosts.  They were the band on a steamship that sunk in the early 1900s, and they drowned.  It’s a pretty sad song, accentuated by Brook’s emotional singing.

The Tale of Solomon Snell is probably my favorite track on the album, and the one that tells the most clear-cut story.  Not sure how it plays into the story (the book says it’s one of the tales told to Christopher by the ghosts), but it’s pretty damn funny, and morbidly tragic.  Totally not a radio song, but pretty freakin’ awesome.  A pretty great sing-along song too, actually.  It’s like a “Tale from the Crypt” story in a song.

Earthbound Starlight, I think, is the first single from the album (there’s a video of it on the official website anyway).  Seems like this is a scene in which the ghosts console the young Christopher as his short trip to stay with Aunt Lilly turns into a much longer trip and he misses his mother.  Or, it’s about Yasuhiro falling in love with Lilly.  I’m thinking “Earthbound Starlight” refers to the imagery of Christopher’s father, in a flaming plane, crashing towards the Earth.

Play Your Part is an interesting song.  It’s really good, and actually reminds me more of some of the old school Duncan Sheik stuff.  But I’m not entirely sure how it plays into the storyline.  I actually checked out the book and it spelled it out for me – Christopher turns in Yasuhiro as a Japanese spy.  Problem is – he’s not really a spy.

You’ve Really Gone and Done it Now isn’t a bad song, but it’s probably the song on the album I like the least.  After Christopher turns in Yasuhiro, he realizes his mistake, and that Lilly loved Yasuhiro back.

How It FeelsThe song How it Feels seems to be about Yasuhiro confessing his love for Lilly, and the pain he feels.  The ghosts seem to be remembering how things used to feel, asking Yasuhiro how his pain feels, as they’ve even lost their ability for even that.  It’s a good song – not my fave, but not the weakest on the album.

I Don’t Believe in You seems like the final song of the actual “storyline” portion of the play, and it seems pretty downbeat, which gives me the impression that maybe the ending isn’t a happy one (it’s hinted at in Play Your Part that it won’t be).  Christopher realizes his mistake, and the ghosts, which he’s starting to realize are manifestations of his mind, are voicing doubts that he can fix the wrong he’s done.  After Solomon Snell, this is my second favorite track on the album.  The music is absolutely stupendous, the singing is great – just a really moving song.

Take a Bow is more of a brief summary of each of the characters of the play.  It’s pretty quirky, actually, but fun if you’ve been following the storyline so far.  The one trend I noticed is that the lyrics of the songs break that fourth wall, and this is the most prime example.  I’m wondering how this song would play out on stage, given that it seems like it would be sung during the time when all the actors, well, take a bow.

As a fan of Duncan Sheik, it’s interesting to see how the songs that made him such a star when his career started, like “Barely Breathing” and “That Says it All,” are not as indicative of his work as something like Whisper House.  He’s more than just a pop singer, and the songs in this and Spring Awakening show his talent at songwriting and, not just that, but storytelling as well.  This CD is highly recommended for anyone looking for something a little different in their music.  If you like your music dumb and fun, probably not up your alley.  I loved it!

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