jeudi 22 juillet 2010

The (belated) Mystery of Musk series continues: JoAnne Bassett's Sensual Embrace and Anya McCoy's Kewdra

The more I delve into the Mystery of Musk series, the more I get the feeling that musk was actually just an excuse for most perfumers to let the animal in them take over the pipettes…

JoAnne Bassett’s Sensual Embrace is a case in point. Musky? Not so much. But animal? Call the Brooklyn zoo. Meanwhile, start singing “I can’t give you anything but love, baby” to that big cat on the roof.

The jarringly dense top notes blow off in a matter of seconds to give way to intensely honeyed ones. I’m getting a lot of broom from this – in other words, honey and tobacco – but that may be because JoAnne has put in an actual tobacco extract. I also get another animal from the floral kingdom, chamomile blossom, which smells delightfully like an overheated field choked with drying plants, but as it’s not listed, I think that could also be some combination of the tobacco, rose oil and labdanum. But the real star of this gig is the jasmine sambac, listed as “vintage” (how long does that stuff actually keep, JoAnne?) which comes along playing a rose-jasmine accord while packing a very un-ladylike indolic wallop, reinforced by an orange blossom that should really be taught a few manners, and a tuberose which, surprisingly, cowers a little in the background, its presence betrayed by the minty tinge it adds to the green facets of the jasmine and rose. The vintage sandalwood takes over in the final drydown and it’s all smooth milky smoky loveliness…

Sensual Embrace lives up to its name, with a good-natured messiness to muss up its classic rose and jasmine get-up – as far as embraces go, this one rolls all over the couch, with much knocked-over crockery. Too bad it’s a quickie – a couple of hours of skin and it left without taking my phone number…

From what I’ve seen and sensed of Anya McCoy in the various virtual hangouts we share, she seems to have a strong, bold, generous personality, and a willingness to take on both prickly issues (such as IFRA regulations) and tricky, unusual raw materials, many of which she produces herself. Which makes me all the more frustrated I can’t seem to get a peg on Kewdra, the scent she composed for The Mystery of Musk, which many of my fellow bloggers were clearly smitten with.

I knew neither pandanus (also known as kewda) nor boronia essential oils, which Anya uses in the blend, so I looked them up. I learned that pandanus has a honeyed, hyacinth aspect, which explains why, on smelling Kewdra, after an initial umami feel (the top notes give off something like lovage), I’m getting broom (the honey facet) and a green-tinged rose oil (rose overlaps with hyacinth on the scent map). As for boronia, I now know its essence contains ionones: the violet does pop out of Kewdra, loud and clear. Anya also lists green gardenia: is that what I’m reading as orange blossom amongst the suave, honeyed beeswax notes?

The opening, vegetal green note persists throughout the floral heart of Kewdra, taking on a slightly sour apple tinge that announces the ambrette is kicking in, along with its usual botanical musk partner-in-crime, angelica. After its initial, flamboyant hour, Kewdra is very much a skin scent.

Somehow, for me, the pieces don’t come together on this one. Maybe natural perfumery is just not my thing, though I did enjoy some of the compositions I received: the door’s not closed, just a bit jammed.

I’m feeling rather guilty that I haven’t posted the Mystery of Musk reviews in due time, and apologize sincerely to the perfumers who sent me their compositions. My question is: do I move forward on the Mystery of Musk reviews at whatever pace feels comfortable to me? Or do you people out there reading me think that these fragrances have been well and thoroughly reviewed by my fellow bloggers, and that I should just move on to stuff I’m more familiar with?

You tell me.

Illustration by the Indian-born American painter Siona Benjamin.

27 commentaires:

  1. I wish you would go on.
    Everyone has a bit different take on these perfumes so it makes it actually easier for readers to understand what they are like and figure out which one might be for them.

  2. Move on to stuff you're more familiar with - and that you like more.
    Perfumes you are not uncomfortable reviewing.

    This series have been quite painful to follow, at least for me, on all the blogs.
    Actually, some bloggers were hilarious in their overenthusiastic response, which sounded much more dictated by the will to support these small perfumers than an actual love of the juice. Some were so generous as to provide a very particular definition of luxury... but if a bad perfume is poured by hand, it does not become any better in my book.
    Already, Vamp à NY, smelled a bit flat despite the lovely notes, and I blame it on the all natural palette.

    I would love to here you talk about some classics guerlains, or new exciting juices, or an extraordinary vintage find, or a natural perfume you really love (like Vamp à NY) - and let us all forget these musks.

  3. Zazie, you pinpoint something that clearly came out in this operation: Indie companies are often run by people who have a direct presence on FB, that you can interact with, who can be annoyed or hurt by a bad review and who might even, as a result, experience a negative impact on a business they've put all their heart and savings and time into.

    So it's difficult to apply the same standards to their products than to products commercialized on mainstream or niche circuits. It's much more personal, which is the very attraction of indie perfumers, but also the reason why I, for one, feel so apologetic, guilty even, when I'm less than enthusiastic. Indie perfumers belong to the same community as blog authors and readers.

    About Vamp à NY: I don't think it can be classified as natural perfumery, which as far as I understand uses only natural essences. Organic perfumery, on the other hand, can resort to isolated molecules extracted by specific processes (for instance, CO2 extraction).
    So it's really not the same method of composition: though the palette is more restricted (but it is expanding rapidly), a perfumer can compose an organic perfume using the same approach as she would with a "non-organic".

    I would say Vamp à NY is simple rather than flat. But I wouldn't use different standards to judge it, and you're right not to.

  4. I agree with Zazie! Move on! Sounds like it's what you would prefer to do, and personally, whenever I've seen these posts across the blogs, I've skipped them (sorry to say, but true).

  5. Karin, it's true that apart from the opening essay, which triggered a lot of comments,it was a bit difficult to generate discussion on these, except between the people who'd actually received samples. It's always a bit tricky to review a fragrance that almost no one has smelled, which by nature these were, and will be, since they are all limited productions...

  6. Your reviews are always a bonus, no matter how much has been already written on the same subject.
    I am not familiar with any of the scents of this series, but still like to read your take on them.

    Having said that, please concentrate on what genuinely interests you and does not feel a chore. Don't waste your talents.

  7. Silvia, I don't like to say that this is a waste of my talents, such as they are: it would mean that the scents weren't worthy, when it's rather that I'm not on their wavelength... And also because there were just so many at a go, which is an extra constraint compared to just reviewing one or two. I'm already at a loss when I discover a line that's got over 6 scents in their collection. So imagine.

  8. Since I live in Germany, I only received 5 of the entries, and I only needed to write mini-reviews for the Natural Perfumery Yahoo! group. This worked out very well, I could concentrate on each one, and write about each to the group that already knew the lingo/aesthetics/history. But so many at once for the bloggers, and, as noted, limited editions/availability, it seemed a bit overwhelming for you all! Still, it's been an interesting project, and very good to get perspectives from outside the "in" crowd! ;-)

  9. Marla, five would have seemed more manageable. Ten (plus one latecomer and one that never made it) was/is overwhelming.
    I agree it's interesting to get opinions from people outside the "in" crowd. Perhaps it would've worked out better if a smaller selection had been sent to each reviewer? I'm sure it was a lot of work for readers too to follow.

    Added to this, that usually, as I write on my own time (as do we all), I tend to just pick whatever strikes my fancy and sparks off my inspiration, so to be confronted to ten compositions I didn't choose is/was probably too daunting. I hate not to fulfill my commitments though...

  10. I would like it if you'd continue -just be leisurely with the reviews if that's something that would help.

    I have enjoyed following this project, but I've also noticed a lack of constructive criticism in many of the reviews. As Anya pointed out earlier, that's something that can help a perfumer improve if they're willing to hear it. Art requires more than just pouring your heart into something; it also needs skill and hard-won experience.

  11. Dionne, you're absolutely right, it's not enough to put all your heart into what you do for it to be art. And the fact that the indie perfumers *are* more accessible, and present on the blogosphere, means that comments can actually be heard, and taken into account if they're relevant.

    In all fairness, and though I haven't read all the reviews (it would have been a full-time job), I think what you perceive as lack of constructive criticism isn't only due to the fact that the various authors wanted to be supportive. It was just, as I've repeatedly stated, a bit too much to take in in such a short amount of time, and I'm not sure all the reviewers were familiar with all the perfumers. It's hard to judge a person's style or skills based on an exercise on an imposed theme within a tight time frame.

    But then, maybe judging wasn't the point: it's certainly given a lot of visibility to a lot of indie perfumers, which is a very postive outcome of the operation.

  12. Denyse,
    Your take on a fragrance is always an interesting and worthwhile read. I remember you struggled with the subject at the start of this series because you were reviewing compositions created in a language (or maybe I should say – dialect) you were not familiar with. Yet, I’m sure Anya had a reason for inviting so many bloggers, whose collective understanding of natural perfumery is still quite limited as a part of “educating” the masses in the blogosphere who are equally unfamiliar to the concept. I personally only have had acquaintance with the works of a few indies and even fewer (perhaps 1?) natural perfumer, and I’ve had mixed results. Yet, for every 3-4 scrubbers, I come across a jewel or a potential for one. In some cases, over time as I retried, some scrubbers became jewels as well.
    The natural perfumery movement took a radically different path because the products and the approach to creating them that were available did not speak their own language. This is certainly consistent with the different movements throughout the history of art, and for me – music. It took me years to come to understand and love the operas of Wagner and Strauss.
    I agree that you should take your time and perhaps revisit some of these compositions that elude you now. Over time, you may acquire the tools necessary to better grasp and communicate them to your readers. I for one would love to read your “then and now” comparisons.
    BTW - Will you be reviewing Jicky's favorite?

  13. OperaFan, your point is valid, though there's a bit I don't get: "did not speak their own language."
    It's true that the various dialects of natural perfumery aren't ones I'm conversant with, and I'm already on such a steep learning curve with the other kind that I don't know how and when I'll have the time to catch up. Somehow, but that may be my bias, it doesn't seem as pressing as figuring out what today's Wagners and Strausses are up to...
    But as I said, the door's not shut!

  14. Sorry - I think that's from editing my extremely lengthy comment on a separate note pad and I didn't catch that part. I'm trying to find the right wording - more along the line of the products did not match their personal aesthetics, and the available materials were inadequate for their expressions. In the end, they carved their own paths.
    Maybe Stravinsky may have been a better contrast as a break from the past than Wagner, although he did rebel against the traditional classical form and harmonic languages, so he invented his own....
    Maybe that makes more sense?

  15. Being one of the reviewers in this project I have enjoyed reading the posts by other bloggers. It was more of a did-we-smell-the-same-thing kind of interest. I don't own many commercial perfumes so when I read blogs and other sites I'm a bit lost. Because of this I "get" that there are those who don't embrace natural perfume like I do. Having said that I do enjoy reading reviews, comments and stories even about an area of perfumery I'm not fully familiar with. I would love to read more of your take on the MoM perfumes then again I find your writing enjoyable so whatever you do I'll still be hear reading.

  16. OperaFan, thanks, it does.

    But I wouldn't quite say that natural perfumery represents a break from the past, since there was nothing *but* natural perfumery until the 1870s. If we're going to use musical analogies, we'd be closer to reintroducing baroque instruments and playing only live concerts, as opposed to Glen Gould in his studio. I love both, as both pulled music out of its 19th century romanticism.
    But both people like Jordi Savall and Glen Gould received classical training before they broke the mold. It takes superb technique on top of inspiration to create new forms.

  17. Lisa, you feel the way I do when I see reviews, say on Perfume-Smellin' Things which features a lot of indie perfumers: I don't know what they're talking about and I don't have access to the products (so much stuff comes my way that ordering samples would be reckless).
    Mind you, I think most blog readers often encounter this, since not everyone lives in a city where a lot of the things we write about are available. It's one of the frustrations of writing about new products: there can't be a discussion. Which is why I did the Vamp à NY operation.
    The Mystery of Musk was a good idea in that respect since several people got to experience the same series of perfumes at the same time.
    I regret I haven't been able to respect the time limit: I should've been less ambitious and just penned short reviews!

  18. I would love you to continue the MoM reviews....I have found your point of view really interesting...admittedly I am in a good position really appreciate it as
    a) I have samples of all of the participating perfumes to compare notes on and
    b) you gave my "Craving" a rather positive review which obviously pleased me immensely!

    But as others have pointed out, different view points is what makes the reviews interesting and also educational for us perfumers!
    And it is the honest, detailed reviews that teach us the most!
    The review you wrote on "Craving" was particularly useful for me because it was detailed, and analytical.

  19. Ambrosia, thanks, it's important to me to feel that the reviews make sense for the perfumers, because I *do* try to put a lot of thought into them.

  20. I think you could skip it now if you feel like or at least follow your own path for the reviews. It was a very interesting project that I tried to follow on each blog, a bit confusing sometimes: maybe too much perfumes, bloggers, and words, and a bit frustrating because 1- I didn't won any; and 2- I have nothing to smell!.

    The good point is that it opened up new views on natural perfumes and it was fun to discover, and read about it. But all I'd like now is to smell those perfumers' creations and make my own opinion.Of course your in depth reviews are always welcomed but this does not have to be a "sacerdoce"!

  21. Anatole, that's what's been most frustrating about the MoM: the only people who have a point of reference are the ones belonging to the relatively small group of bloggers, discussion board members and perfumers who actually got to discover the products. That's why I tried to skew the discussion towards a more general one on natural perfumery. It's the only way in which this can speak to the rest of my readers, I think.

  22. For what it's worth, I would finish it because it's always satisfying finishing what you started. But there's no need to rush. Inspiration may strike if there is no deadline. As for the general debate, I have no particular positive or negative feeling about naturals as a concept (some work for me, most don't - but the same is true of non-naturals!) and I don't mind reading about things I don't get to smell. I don't get to smell a lot of the indie US perfumers whose samples are just that bit too expensive to ship overseas when you have no idea if you'll like them or not. But I would always rather hear about someone who at least tried to make something interesting (even if it doesn't work for you) rather than the next all packaging no substance celebrity flanker.

  23. London, I guess I'll be following my inspiration. I hate to let down people I've made a commitment to, but I won't be very helpful if I feel it's an obligation - plus the idea of rewiewing something as a form of advice to the perfumer might not be the best way to feed inspiration...

  24. I'd like to read more- I like reading other people's opinions when they're well put, which yours are.

    My deal with natural perfumers is that if I really don't like it I most likely just won't write about it, or at least just point out that this is what it did on my skin and your mileage may vary. Writing that some focus-grouped monster from the LVMH lab is crap is reporting; writing that someone's personal baby is crap is cruel.

  25. Tom, i certainly hope none of what I wrote came off as cruel, or saying anything was crap. That's the difficulty of the MoM operation: having to write about all the entries. Normally I take your stance with the "little guys": I don't like, or I'm not inspired, I don't write. Hence my present perplexity... Still, not making what I hope are constructive remarks is also a lack of consideration for a piece of work.

  26. Your comments weren't cruel at all; quite the opposite. Forgive my poor syntax if the comment read as it if it implied so. I mean people on boards and blogs who will make the truly snarkalicious comments for the sake of the snark.