Instruments come with assumptions. If you see a tuba, you expect a march or New Orleans jazz. An accordion prepares you for zydeco or polka. And if you see a 48-piece drum kit with a variety of gongs hanging behind it, you know to pop some aspirin. The fun of Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards’ Bitter Better is how they use a variety of instruments, like violin, cello, and upright bass, to craft songs that touch on the expected classical and country, but that also sound like modern pop. The album works because of thoughtful performances that bend the instruments to the will of each track.
Cortese is an American singer/violinist now based in Belgium. Her voice is the equivalent of a Midwestern non-accent, capable of fitting in on playful contemporary-sounding tracks, flowing folk-influenced ones, and tunes with a classical lilt. It’s like a video montage where a character moves quickly through wildly different backdrops, except her vocals work perfectly in each setting.
“Corduroy Jacket” packs a gentle groove and a keyboard line that sounds like a human whistling. Valerie Thompson’s cello rumbles beneath the tune, with Cortese’s voice sounding unaware of its own beauty and power, a Cyndi Lauper energy amplified by the tune’s withering lyrics: “If you don’t like what you see / Why do you spend so much time looking in the mirror?” Strings criss-cross the song, replacing the more traditional guitars and synth pads one normally hears on this kind of track. But you don’t notice strings are filling in. They take over seamlessly, leaving you unable to immediately recognize why the song sounds so new and interesting.
“Where the Fox Hides” is more overtly classically influenced. A heartbeat-like keyboard line courses through the song as a variety of string stabs play off of Cortese’s singing, which also veers toward the classical. “Typhoon,” with its banjo line, is folkier, although a strong drumbeat gives it much more of a club element than other folk music. The groove also lends the song a flow that feels like watching leaves stirring in the breeze on a lovely sunny day. It’s a chill moment that you don’t realize will ever end, right up until it does. Cortese and her band hit some down-home country notes, too, but like “Where the Fox Hides,” those interludes don’t overwhelm the essence of the song.
Bitter Better is enjoyable because Cortese and her band understand their songs and their sonic palettes. They’re able to fluently reconfigure sounds that carry a lot of historical baggage into something new. But most impressively, they do so without making the album feel like a big trick. There’s no big reveal that the synths are actually live strings. Instead, Cortese and her band use these unexpected tools to create warm tracks that read as pop but have the depth of folk and classical, which is an impressive enough feat.