Paige Cora‘s “Stray Balloons” is a slow-burning torch song, a brooding piano-and-cello piece that gets under my skin and stays there. Cello in a ballad can be trite, but the performances here are strong and carefully-handled; this song is evocative without being maudlin, propulsive without being punchy. It has its own gravitas, created by the internal logic of the vocals, piano, and drums moving the song forward. The big cymbal sweep that introduces the chorus should be so old hat, but this sonic world makes it into a revelation. It takes a lot of skill to take the basic building blocks of ballads and cast them into a sonic world that makes them all shine. Cora has that skill. The tune is high-drama without falling into any of the pitfalls of high drama. How often does that happen?
Cora’s penchant for musical drama is matched by a lyrical sense of drama. “Stray Balloons” exists almost a scene from a play: the narrator is talking directly to a listener, confidently telling the listener how to go forward in life. As Cora notes, “I wrote the song from the perspective of a friend urging someone to follow through.” The chorus lyric, “If I could show you life from someone else’s point of view/ You’ve hid behind the walls you built so no one captures you/ you better pack light, there’s no end coming up in sight” drives this point home. The vocal delivery is by turns subtle and soaring; Cora picks her moments to nuance the edges of phrases, but backs that up with vocal chops for the big moments.
Turns out the musical and lyrical dramas aren’t the only type of drama corralled into this song. Cora looked to a specific film for the vibe of this song: “Thematically, I drew from a scene from Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, when the three main characters have to drop all of their luggage in order to catch the train. It’s all in slow motion, and its message is basically that you have to lose the unnecessary baggage in order to move forward. As simple as it sounds, it’s not easy to do.” I absolutely adore The Darjeeling Limited–I have two brothers, so it’s hard not to imagine myself and my brothers in the film. And that indelible image in the film is a beautiful one; it doesn’t surprise me that the underlying inspiration (the film) helped produce a beautiful lyrical and musical song.
Instant in Time releases January 24. The photo in that album cover in that video (welcome to the 21st century) is by Jennifer McCready. Catch Cora on Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and YouTube. —Stephen Carradini