As someone who listens to a large variety of music and is always on the lookout for more, I have a large queue of songs, artists, and albums to look into, either because I learned about them on my own or had them recommended to me. Unsurprisingly, this often results in me taking months or even years to finally get around to doing so, and I become frustrated that I didn’t make myself do so earlier, even though I acknowledge that it’s difficult to handle it much of any other way.
Canadian singer-songwriter Ché Aimee Dorval was an artist on this very queue for a number of months, having made her way on there after I heard her breathtaking singing in her collaboration with Devin Townsend in Casualties of Cool. I finally decided to dig into her music in the past month, and I’ve fallen in love with her debut album, Underachiever.
Underachieiver is a nine-track album, clocking in at only thirty minutes of playtime. But despite its length, the music it has to offer is pure substance, both in Dorval’s gorgeous vocals and her poetic, honest songwriting to accompany the song’s delightfully stripped-down acoustic pop.
The album as a whole takes a pretty minimalist tack with instrumentals, with many of the songs featuring solely acoustic guitar to back the vocals. It gives the album an honest, home-y flavor, and it gives Dorval’s vocals a chance to really shine without the instrumentals interfering or overshadowing them too much. Where the instrumentals are expanded upon, however, it creates a compelling atmosphere. The first two tracks, “Ambush” and “Needs Fixing” feature steel guitar, giving them a bit of a country edge, and “Getting Lighter” makes interesting use of accordion. “Say” and “This Style of Living” feature some of the most prominent instrumentals on the album, but there’s still an excellent balance between instrumentals and vocals, and it serves to give both songs some poignancy.
Some of the album’s themes include the struggle of vocalizing your feelings (“Say” and “Dinosaur Song”), self-reflection (“Ambush” and “Underachiever”), and moving forward from negative people and circumstances (“Getting Ligher” and “The Fading Kind”), with each one brought to life by the musical atmosphere and Dorval’s songwriting.
Though I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the album as a whole, the one song that has yet to fully click with me is “This Style of Living.” It features some of the most powerful vocals on the album and its upbeat piano riff is compelling, but it lacks the same emotional connection for me that I’ve developed with the other eight tracks.
I could hardly complain about any of the other tracks, though (or even that one, really), and there are many clear standouts. “Good Wife” is a vulnerable confession of romantic feelings, in which Dorval pleads, “You’re worth living a long life / you’re worth being a good wife / I would love to love you.” “Say” and “Dinosaur Song” are both extremely effective in their demands to make feelings known, particularly with the latter’s repeated cry of, “The silence in me is deafening.”
Potentially the album’s biggest standout is “The Fading Kind,” which closes Underachiever on a somewhat-grim note in the most effective manner. The minimalist acoustic guitar accompanying this minor-key song gives a feeling of emptiness that acts as a flawless companion to Dorval’s tale of a toxic love that acted as a destructive force. This most strongly comes through in the climax of the song, where Dorval sings, “I’m thin, I’m air / I’m barely here / Just hanging on, hanging on / To any place I once belonged.”
Again, Underachiever may be short, but it’s a true situation of quality over quantity. Dorval is an immensely talented musician and it shines through in every part of the album; I so look forward to hearing more from her. In the meantime, give Underachiever a whirl and see if it’s your cup of tea. You can listen to any of the songs from the album on her Bandcamp page.