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Culture Reviews
Alina Orlova
Sixteen Tons 
By Martin Richardson
Alina Orlova’s delicately-wrought miniatures can easily take on the aspect of chamber music – and as such might be better suited to one of the smaller halls at MMDM rather than Moscow’s bars and clubs. In a packed 16 Tons not even a room full of loyal fans could inspire an evening which really showed off her music to its best.

The Lithuanian singer-songwriter has been steadily carving out an international reputation for herself, and has a growing following here in Russian, many of whom are word perfect in her songs. That’s some achievement considering that Orlova sings in Russian, Lithuanian or English. Meanwhile her second album, Mutabor, got an international release earlier this year amid enthusiastic promotion from Travis frontman Fran Healy, who lobbied for her song “Vaiduoklai” to be included as one of seven tracks on a sampler of emerging international artists.

Her work, tending towards the meditative, largely revolves around keyboard hooks and ethereal vocals: at times it’s like listening to the lesser-known offspring of Phillip Glass and Tori Amos. Critics have described it as “a high-trilling voice and a unique line in exhilaratingly dark, Baltic folk pop”. That’s only part of the story, though. Orlova has taken the stage at “Lady in Jazz” events as well, and her work is too versatile to be pigeonholed into any one genre.

Despite the praise for her music, it’s a fragile, high-pitched sound, and one which is easily shattered when the mix isn’t quite right. Sadly, with an overly harsh reverb on the upper registers of the keyboard and the higher-pitched vocal lines, that mix was exactly the problem with this show. It still wasn’t without it high points. Orlova is nothing if not versatile, and moved easily between the rather classical-sounding combination of keyboard with strings to a stint with only a piano to help out. Alone on stage, she suddenly came across as more of a cabaret singer taking a moment to ease off the tempo and pick out a more reflective number – albeit one which strayed far from the standard formula. Perhaps surprisingly the best moments came when the ivories ceased to be tickled. A plangent, folk-inflected lament accompanied by dense chords on a solo violin was a show-stopping highlight; a second number with Orlova taking up the accordion also worked well. But too many of the tracks from Mutabor got lost in an unhelpful acoustic: the likes of Sirdis lost their crystalline subtleties somewhere along the way.

That was hugely disappointing: much of her music works beautifully when it can be properly heard, and the up-tempo numbers – particularly “Amerika” – went down well with the audience at 16 Tons. But it took a long time for the show to really warm up, and with a set lasting barely 75 minutes time was not a luxury Orlova really had. It seems that she is now at something of a crossroads: in her native Lithuania she made her reputation on the back of her “cozy” shows, and her Moscow sets have tended to come to venues like this one, or the similarly compact Masterskaya. But increasing popularity means “cozy” quickly becomes “overcrowded”. However, translating such low-key, intimate music to a larger stage risks it becoming totally overwhelmed. Until an answer can be found, it might be worth sticking with the CDs.

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