Ah, the curse of cuteness. Lisa Hannigan must know it better than many. Her voice is as prettily breathy as Norah Jones', as warm and comforting as a teddy bear under an electronic blanket, and as sweet as the spun sugar she sings of in "Pistachio." Her voice, in short, is the essence of what one might call "feminine." Hannigan played and sang with Damien Rice for six years; you may also know her duet "Some Surprise" with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol. Here, on her first solo album, she proves she can more than hold her own—in the bashful way a butterfly might.
This album is at its finest when the lyrics and music are as cuddly and subtle as the vocals are. Songs like "Splishy Splashy," "Pistachio," and "Lillie" exemplify this best. "I Don't Know," my favorite pick of the album, is a "list song" par excellence, enumerating all that the singer does not yet know about a potential paramour, but would like to: "I don't know if you write letters/or panic on the phone." The lyrics are endearing in their simplicity and the character is so appealing in her uncertainty. The listener has to love this woman because she's so sweet and adorable. You can practically see her toying with her hair and staring at her feet like a teenager. An accompanying horn section, violin, and background vocals add pleasant depth to the song, which otherwise might prove too cotton-candy-fluffy for most audiences.
Yet for a listener who identifies as a feminist, such tracks feel like guilty pleasures. Shouldn't I expect more self-assertion from female artists? Or at least want them to transcend a pretty-girl vision of femininity? Never fear. Other songs, like “Keep it All” and “Courting Blues” on Sea Sew are darker and more intense. The latter begins with mournful, sawing strings, yet the vocals come in as gently as on the precious "Splishy Splashy." What is going on here? The melody and ambiguous lyrics ("Don't you be afraid tonight/Your father will not know") evoke something ineffably disquieting and seductively sinister, which is something you might expect from Rufus Wainwright or The Phantom of the Opera. We suddenly realize that the possession of a sweet singing voice can no more define Lisa Hannigan than the possession of a vagina or mammary glands.
And yet, I keep listening to the album for the pretty songs. When Sea Sew embraces its sweetness instead of fighting against it, the album truly displays how very lovely and powerful it can be.