Unchained Music Blog

Unchained Music Blog

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sarah Donner - Black Hole Heart (2016)

Written by Glenn Babbitt, posted by blog admin

The sensitivity defining Sarah Donner’s musical artistry has rapidly made her one of the indie music world’s most respected performers and writers. There’s a level of nuance in what she does that’s never coy or pretentious, never inaccessible, and challenges listeners to engage complex emotions through accessible melodies and pleasing, layered textures. It rates as a great album in its current state, but it might have befitted being cut from a dozen songs to ten instead. It’s a small complaint that not everyone will share. There simply isn’t a single track on Black Hole Heart that fails to hit the mark – it has a strong acoustic base and the Americana/folk/singer-songwriter group of labels definitely applies, but Donner’s musical imagination has some risk taking and element of surprise that many of her contemporaries lack. The lyrics are blessed with a distinctly literary flair that sets them further apart from similar sounding material.

Her literary flair is apparent in the first song. She isn’t the first songwriter to make use of mythological references, but “Phoenix” deserves noting thanks to how she blends the personal into fine writing while still maintaining a low-key air. One of the consistent strengths you’ll find on Sarah Donner’s work, under any name, is an attention to balance and the lyrics work with the arrangement rather than attempting to stand apart. Her sensitive but resolute phrasing continues with the album’s second song and title cut. “Black Hole Heart” has a light pop edge with the way it orchestrates its dynamics but its fidelity to the album’s acoustic bent keeps the song well in line with the remainder of the album. She returns to more solidly folkie territory with the track “Florida” and you can hear her influences coming through more strongly on songs like this without ever losing her voice as an individual. She brings an intensely personal quality to the performance thanks to the lyrics and their plain-spoken invocation of reality never pulls punches. These are songs strained with life’s darker moments, but they are never so mired in despair that they prove to be difficult listening experiences. “Tamsen Donner 1847” is an ideal example of the last statement. The hushed pain conjured by its narrative and the matter of fact, yet suggestive, manner the lyrics resolve, gives this song the distinction of being one of the album’s finest atmospheric pieces.

Her capacity for surprising listeners reaches its fullest potential on Black Hole Heart with the song “The Flood”. The contributions of Philip Fillion’s organ playing and Mike Batchelor’s trumpet take this song in a much wilder direction from the earlier songs. She revisits mythological symbolism in the song “Albatross”. It’s an ambiguously worded piece with warring emotions and one of the album’s best arrangements. It takes a rather confrontational air during the refrain, but there’s more of a sense of hurt filling the verses. Her compassion really comes through more vividly than ever before on the song “The Longest Road” and the beguiling vocal melody, complete with sing songy parts, makes it a pleasing listening experience despite its weighty subject matter. Her folk influences really come across quite beautifully on the album’s penultimate track “Sinking Ship” and the meditative guitar figure is eloquent, yet simple. Black Hole Heart is a profoundly moving musical work that illustrates the true extent of Sarah Donner’s depth as a writer and performer while never failing to provide an entertaining experience.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Gregg Stewart - Twenty Sixteen (2017)

Written by Raymond Burris, posted by blog admin

Fourteen songs for Gregg Stewart’s album Twenty Sixteen gives listeners an idea about how much devastation death visited on the music community in 2016. There is certainly a passing of the guard going on today as the icons of the sixties and seventies succumb to countless ailments and leave the scene. We are fortunate to have performers and writers like Gregg Stewart emerging to take their place. He gives an overview of what he loves plus a creative tribute wrapped up in one and puts some real flair on it thanks to a multi-faceted vocal performance that inhabits all of the tunes and just the right amount of artful accompaniment from a three piece backing band. Despite the tasteful quality of these tracks, however, there’s real grit and gravitas to be heard by attentive listeners. Twenty Sixteen will please fans of the respective artists, Gregg Stewart fans, and undoubtedly win new converts over with their presentation.

The key performances on Twenty Sixteen, satisfying on both a vocal and musical level, are his adaptation of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”, his bluesy remake of Leon Russell’s “One More Love Song”, “If I Could Only Fly”, “High Flying Bird”, Guy Clark’s “Out in the Parking Lot”, the great Leonard Cohen’s “Leaving the Table”, and David Bowie’s “Starman”. The lightly dancing keyboard notes carrying the memory of “Raspberry Beret” have a sparkling delicacy that keeps the song wafting just off the ground and moving past listeners. Stewart’s album notes discuss how he hoped to turn Leon Russell’s classic “One More Love Song” into something reminiscent of The Band’s recordings from their first two albums and manages it with magically minimal effort. The countrified leanings that Stewart excels so well with reach a full flower with the track “If I Could Only Fly”, written by Blaze Foley, popularized by Merle Haggard. The tender, careful vocal treatment that he gives to Foley’s lyrics is quite reminiscent of Haggard’s own version.  It keeps a rootsy air going from beginning to end.

“High Flying Bird” from the early years of Jefferson Airplane shapes up as being on the best outings yet on Twenty Sixteen. Despite the fact original members Signe Anderson and Paul Kantner died in 2016, Stewart could have chosen to ignore the former death and, instead, cover a more recognizable track from these sixties’ stalwarts. The exuberant surge of Glenn Frey’s “I Found Somebody” survives intact into Stewart’s version and he throws himself headlong into the song with the same beaming gratitude.  He bravely takes on Leonard Cohen with the track “Leaving the Table” and puts as much of himself as he can manage into this with an equally committed musical performance. Twenty Sixteen runs a little long and could have done without a couple of otherwise fine performances, but Gregg Stewart is working in peak work throughout the entirety of this superb release.