When listening to the music of Alison Sudol — who performs under the moniker of A Fine Frenzy — for the first time, it would be understandable if the artists who come most quickly to mind are Tori Amos and Kate Bush. After all, Bush and Amos also use piano as their primary instrument, Amos is known for her red hair (although, like Sudol, she isn’t a natural redhead), and, like Bush, Sudol writes lyrics grounded in imagery and metaphors.
Regardless, Sudol has carved out her own path separate from such easy comparisons, resulting in one of the most rewarding career arcs of any songwriter in the mid-2000s.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Sudol moved to Los Angeles with her parents not long after, but the Pacific Northwest became a crucial influence on her music, which is full of references to nature and literature — furthermore, her performing name was inspired by the line “in a fine frenzy rolling” in Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Come On, Come Out”, the opening track from her 2007 debut One Cell in the Sea:, is an excellent introduction to Sudol’s affinity for contemplative melodies and imagery-filled lyrics:
However, its parent album isn’t quite as strong an introduction to Sudol’s talents.
“Come On, Come Out” is well-constructed and, while perhaps a little too overproduced, gives some idea of who Sudol is as a musician. Unfortunately, One Cell maintains that exact same pace for just over an hour, and the album’s production adds so many unnecessary instruments that what could have been a lush sound feels muddled.
Unsurprisingly, “Almost Lover”, the most successful song from the album, brings Sudol’s piano to the forefront and boasts some of her most potent and direct lyrics:
This isn’t to say that One Cell is a bad album; it’s a promising debut. At the same time, “Almost Lover” — and live performances of songs like “Last of Days”, which reveals itself to be an achingly lovely ballad – demonstrate that Sudol has chops but that her debut hadn’t been the best showcase for them:
Thankfully, her music underwent a dramatic change with her second album, Bomb in a Birdcage. When those drums and bell-clear piano burst forth at the start of “New Heights”, it becomes obvious that Sudol has taken a significant step forward musically and lyrically:
In that same vein, one of the record’s most radio-ready moments, “Electric Twist”, feels just playful and odd enough to distinguish itself (even if its video was kind of awkward). Elsewhere, “The World Without” includes an unexpected reference to the twelfth-century love story between the French abbess Héloïse and writer Peter Abelard:
Despite the buoyancy and energy of much of the album, melancholy and unrest lurk just below the surface; many songs feel like attempts to process the breakup of a relationship or the unexpected loss of a lover or friend.
That sense of longing and a need to start over became one of the driving forces behind A Fine Frenzy’s third and arguably best album, Pines,. Sudol has only ever described the catalyst for the album as “a major life transformation” beginning not long after the release of Bomb in a Birdcage, and while that would be enough inspiration for any artist, she chose to portray those emotions through a highly specific narrative.
I remember listening to the album for the first time, fully expecting a cozy and unassuming start to the record, and instead was completely blown away:
Pines is nominally a fable about a tree that develops free will and embarks on a journey to discover a place where she belongs. That concept could have come across as pretentious or dangerously twee, but Sudol makes it relatable and emotionally resonant . Sudol published an interactive eBook and a short film to flesh out the narrative of the album, but Pines works as a record without any knowledge of its backstory.
The lovely, comforting “Avalanches (Culla’s Song)”, which Sudol began writing around the time of One Cell for a pregnant friend and completed for Pines, aptly demonstrates the astonishing evolution of Sudol’s abilities as a musician and lyricist:
The meticulous and immersive listening experience offered on Pines was at times difficult to reproduce on tour, but album centrepiece “Riversong”, recorded in one take, loses none of its emotional potency when performed live:
Pines is such a focused record that even its most commercial song, first single “Now is the Start”, doesn’t feel out of place. On the album, it serves as the penultimate track and a joyous culmination of the narrative Sudol tells:
After the release of her third album, Sudol chose to no longer perform under he name A Fine Frenzy and began to pursue an acting career, enrolling in classes and soon finding success with a supporting turn in HBO’s Transparent and a leading role in USA’s short-lived thriller Dig. Sudol was then cast in the largest role of her career thus far, Queenie Goldstein in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and has been regarded as the film’s breakout star.
Sudol wrote the school song for the American wizarding school Ilvermorny for the film, and while it didn’t make it into the final cut, she sang a brief excerpt of the song during an interview with co-star Dan Fogler:
Recently, Sudol has revealed that she wrote material for a new album while filming Fantastic Beasts in England, and plans to release the album under a different moniker. It’s unknown what direction her next album might take, but it remains clear that as A Fine Frenzy, she demonstrated one of the rewarding stylistic evolutions of an an artist in quite some time, and I’m excited to see what she releases next.