A quirky sense of humor, a light touch, and a wispy gossamer voice combine to make Helen Austin's Treehouse a delight.
After spending much of her adult life doing comedy in her native England, Austin moved to Vancouver, B.C. in 2002 and began focusing on her music. A strong adherent to the philosophy of "do it yourself," she records and releases her own records, and her self-produced music videos regularly delight fans around the world.
The signature element on Treehouse is Austin's voice, a wonderfully bright and cheery instrument that recalls Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose (the indie duo who rose to fame singing "Mr. Sandman" on a viral car commercial.) On Treehouse, Austin's third album, the arrangements remain sparse and bright, with whistles and handclaps, tambourine and piano, xylophone and ukulele, even a kazoo. Adults will find her music refreshingly chipper and upbeat, and frazzled parents might even find that these delightful ditties make perfect naptime lullabies for their toddlers.
Of course, many people want to throw their shoe through their TV sets every time that Pomplamoose commercial comes on the air; twee music can be insufferably smug and self-satisfied. Austin avoids that trap. Treehouse might certainly earn the label "twee pop" but there's a warmth and wisdom in her voice that's never overly winsome or cute.
Most of Austin's songs comprise mini-symphonies of self-affirmation, with positive messages about feeling good about yourself and the world around you. "Everybody" epitomizes that approach; "everybody needs to be in a beautiful place," she coos, as she plucks the melody from a uke and a single tambourine provides the percussion. A woodblock comes in on the second verse to add a bit more animation to the song as Austin doubles her vocals, harmonizing with herself. "We all need some love to share, we all need some one to care," she sings, and it's impossible not to feel all warm and cozy envisioning the perfect embrace she's describing.
The whispery, quickly paced "Treehouse" almost sounds like a round you'd sing on a bus to keep children busy; then Austin whistles the solo and it's giggles all over. The slower "Love Is," with its acoustic guitar, is a more straightforward love song, a simple, languorous melody in which Austin sings multiple parts. There's a sad, lonely lilt to the tune as Austin sings of waiting for her love to notice her; "I … always wanted you… to… see me," she achingly sings on the final verse.
A strummed ukulele and bare-bones percussion propel "Take Me Away," a simple song about wanting to take a trip with a delightful "la-la-la" chorus. Austin introduces piano on the lonely, loungey waltz "Don't Ask Again," one of the darker numbers on the album. "Just Thirteen" returns to the theme of childhood – "when I was a girl of just thirteen, I didn't know what could have been." It's about the innocence of first crushes – "naiveté was good to you and me" – with a charming kazoo solo at its center.
"Something To Cry About" is a bit more adult, a melancholy love song picked on ukulele with processed handclaps for percussion.
A few other standouts on the album include "You And I," another broken-hearted love song with strummed guitars that sounds almost like a harp. "I Can Make You" is the lament of a tomboy who can make her boyfriend smile and laugh, but not understand that she's the only girl for him. It's cute, whimsical, light-hearted, and again, the sort of tune that might make a four-year old smile, a fourteen-year old swoon, and a forty-year old nod with recognition and appreciation.
"Wonderful Day," which closes the album, basically updates the theme song from the classic PBS children's program "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." It's upbeat message about seizing the day and enjoying the beauty around us is timeless and universal.
Helen Austin's crafted a wonderful collection of enjoyable, upbeat, perky songs on Treehouse that will appeal to people of all ages.
Review by Jim Testa
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)