Precociousness always catches its observer off guard; we are witness to a stubborn incongruity, a disproportionate relationship between limited years and elevated levels of skill, insight, or vision. It confounds common experience, and we wonder. When Ortolan’s debut album Time On A String was released in 2010, three quarters of the family foursome were yet under drinking age. Along with copious kudos given to the quality of the music and the maturity of the songwriting, every single review made mention of their age. Wonder indeed.
What may be the greater marvel though, is when a nascent talent starts to grow into itself; when prodigious promise begins to deliver something beyond spectacle, when it begins to nourish those who are witness to it. Such is the case with Ortolan’s latest, Covered In Black.
The pulse at the heart of Ortolan’s music has always been Stephanie Cottingham’s voice, a curious combination of innocence, wisdom, and wit (all rare commodities in the greater landscape of popular music today). These beguiling qualities remain, but here her voice is imbued with a greater richness. The bandwidth of color, hue, and shade has widened; the reds are redder and the blues are bluer. Even more significant though, is Cottingham’s development as an interpreter of her own songs. Her voice remains a thing to behold, but in the tradition of Kitty Wells, Etta James, or Emmylou Harris, she is becoming a storyteller. Each note is now is its own scene in a greater drama. Each vocal push and lilt tells of loss and love, fear and friendship.
As much as Ortolan is about Stephanie Cottingham’s voice and songwriting, it is about family, and the picture is incomplete without the powerful presence of Jill (keys), Briana (bass), and Lara (drums). Floor toms drum and drive, strumming guitars strum and strum faster, basses rock and keyboards swirl and swoop. Their commitment to one another is palpable, and is as important to the music as the notes and rhythms they’re playing.
That their voices also join Stephanie’s throughout the record is not insignificant. There is an excess of animosity in the world: so much time is spent competing, resisting, debating, conflicting, arguing. There is something so vital and humane in joining voices for once, in unison. One of the simplest and most powerful activities of human beings is singing together, and this is a central ingredient to Ortolan’s music and life. Nothing is pretended—it’s what they do: voices are raised and raised together — to cry, to question, to pray, to laugh, to celebrate.
The color black is achieved through the mixing of different paints and opposing pigments; as such, black represents the presence of color, not the absence of it, and Ortolan’s latest is covered in it.
1. Bottle’s Broken
2. Holding This Fire
3. Votes Are In
4. Covered In Black
7. Green Were The Days
8. You Don’t Know
9. Above The Mountain