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Lydia Ainsworth - Phantom Forest Music Album Reviews

The ever-ambitious Toronto composer tackles big themes on her environmentally minded song cycle, but keeps things refreshingly immediate and small-scale.

Lydia Ainsworth’s third full-length hints continually at the bloated, convoluted record it could have been. An environmentally minded song cycle inspired by Greek tragedies and Italian Renaissance art and partially narrated from the perspective of Mother Nature, Phantom Forest nonetheless resists the pull towards grandiosity. Instead, Ainsworth opts for a compact and personable nine songs over a lean 30 minutes, prioritizing immediacy over maximalism.

Phantom Forest’s 2017 processor Darling of the Afterglow rarely missed a chance to go big. On that project, Ainsworth cast herself as a wide-tent experimentalist in the mold of Susanne Sundfør, spinning a Ferris wheel of showy, synthesized classical pop and bombastic EDM. Impressive as it could be, the project worked better as a showcase reel than a proper album, and sometimes Ainsworth’s personality got overshadowed by the gloss. Phantom Forest sacrifices a little wow factor in favor of more direct songs, a tradeoff that flatters her.

Ainsworth never sounds more beguiling than when she imagines the kind of records Kate Bush might have crafted if she had grown up on ‘90s R&B. Her voice takes on hues of T-Boz’s feathery croon as she imagines an endangered natural utopia on “Can You Find Her Place,” a slinky track with the pep of Tom Tom Club’s immortal “Genius of Love.” Over a trap-shaded beat on “Tell Me I Exist,” she casts a suspicious eye toward facial recognition technology, particularly the Google Arts and Culture app that had users racing to surrender their personal data in exchange for seeing which classic paintings they maybe kinda-sorta resembled. “In leverage of your comfort/To match a portrait’s face/That hangs inside of a museum/Now hangs a database,” she sings skeptically.

Ainsworth is aided on two standouts by S U R V I V E’s Kyle Dixon, one of the composers behind the Stranger Things soundtrack, and their visions prove especially complementary. On the call to action “The Time,” a mechanical strut with an undercurrent of menace, her bright, weightless voice cuts through the gloomy synths like blades of fresh grass on a muddy field, while the minimalist “Give It Back To You” provides her ample room to show off her agile, Tinashe-esque quiver. The more intimacy a track allows her, the more passionately her voice blossoms.

Phantom Forest closes with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Green is the Colour,” and while typically few moves signify ambition quite like a Pink Floyd cover, Ainsworth uses it as one final opportunity to go small. David Gilmour wrote that song about a natural wonder, the Spanish island Ibiza, but Ainsworth’s spectral rendition renders it even more elemental, turning it into a love letter to nature itself. The track offers a final moment of hope and tranquility on an album that, without overstating its case, outlines the threats to the planet’s most dependable source of those comforts. Like the record itself, it’s a big statement in a deceptively humble package.

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