Ortolan’s “Time on a String”

Holly gives Ortolan’s new record a 7.9. Check it out.

Holly Etchison

out of 10

Time on a String
March 8, 2010

When I was a young teen, I very much enjoyed going to the library and checking out Rosamund du Jardin’s Tobey Heydon series of books written in the 1950s. Over and over I checked them out–I knew exactly where they were. I liked that they smelled dusty, that the edges of their pages were yellow and fuzzy from use. Their titles were compelling to a 13 year old: Practically Seventeen. Boy Trouble. Class Ring. The Real thing. Tobey had copper colored hair which she tied back with a brightly colored ribbon. She and her boyfriend met at the malt shoppe after school. Most of her dilemmas revolved around school dances and troublesome kid sisters. But therein was part of the appeal I think: something in me longed for a simpler time, an innocent way of seeing the world, a world that even if it were on the brink of change, only hinted at the notion in the most pleasant of circumstances.

Going out on a limb, one could say that the all girl sister group Ortolan, whose name comes from the French and actually means “gardener bird,” are themselves songbirds tending to the garden of youth in us all. Even the boys. At first listen, a tired denizen of the 40 Watt might say aloud, Are you serious? This seems so junior high! Aren’t girl groups usually angry at men? Coy beyond belief? Lamenting failed relationships and staking a claim for universal female rights? Or, dare I pen it, super sexy? But as you let the refrains sink in, as the piano lesson chord progressions plunk along and a ripping rogue guitar solo surprises you, the thought starts to alight that maybe you’ve bought a lie with that latest Hole album. Not to dismiss the struggles of Courtney Love or the satisfaction a little rage can bring, I simply contend that these Ortolan gals may be presenting a sneak attack of goodness. Or, at the very least, heavens preserve us, something different.

Songs like “Sticky Situation” confirm my theory: this tune is just plain catchy. The mere enunciation (or is it an annunciation?) of singer Stephanie and back up vocalist Jill singing,“I just want to make things better/ The sticky SITCH-ooo-aaa-shun/ I’m in the sit-u-a-tion,” is like happening upon a glee club at a UN meeting, where you could imagine all the world leaders dropping their grudges and snapping their fingers to the fun beat: bink bink bink, da, bink bink bink da.

On “Once,” a sort of jazzed up “Surfer girl,” and “Insist for more” with its Leader of the Pack undertones, you are instantly transported to the ‘50s, Gidget, and Beach Blanket Bingo. The themes offer hope in storybook singsong, “She looked at him and saw nothing but love… from that point on things would be different.” A petulant girl is able to change and the power of love can reconcile opposites.

Mid-album we seem to wade into slightly deeper waters with lulling melodies like “Sleep Sleep Sleep.” Beach attire is abandoned for maybe a velveteen evening gown in a sixties night club. The refrain whines in a haunting way: “You wait for the ones you love,” and the a capela ending resonates: “O my dear you’re so sweet, so sincere/ You look into the mirror with tons of tears/ You cry and cry/ You thought you were gonna die/ ‘Cause you thought you were alone/ You weren’t alone.”

It is here also I found one of my favorite tracks on the album, “Changes,” whose end is a total surprise and also seems to indicate the changes that have occurred in the song’s subject: a girl who’s grown up fast, “the days when you were innocent have passed,” with an awesome guitar riff and band member Lara on building drums. Close on its heels is “Ludwig,” and we return to childhood, making music on the nursery xylophone. We are on a merry go round watching the scenery spin in circles, we are looking at a dancer in a music box twirl methodically. The singer states her independence, and the instruments follow:
“Don’t try to run my life/ I won’t go with the flow… Here is what I have to say/ That we just can’t waste away.”

The building in “Anything” closes the album with a rapid pace and an anthemic chorus: “I was meant for something/ I was meant for something more,” admitting, “what is it, I’m not sure.”

With this, the family quartet has given us a peek into the diary of a hopeful girl, the wonderment of life as it unfolds, a look at things thru an untainted lens. I ponder a pocket watch, and the nature of time. I think of something Tobey said: that she wished time was like a rubber band–that you could stretch out the parts you liked and snap the others short. In its own way, Ortolan’s premiere gives us the chance to do our own time adjusting, to recover and retrieve something maybe we lost along the way, something we thought we were supposed to lose but never quite felt right for its absence. I’m feeling a little lighter upon its completion, a little bit like I still have most of my road before me.

–Holly Etchison, July 6, 2010