St. Even is that rare record that is captivating in its vocal melodies, arrangements, lyrics, and album art design. Captivating me with one of these things is enough to score a rave review, but this self-titled record from the nom de guerre of singer/songwriter Steven Hefter gives me everything at once. This quirky, lovely, challenging record is a surefire bet to be on my Top 10 of the year list.
IC has been on the Hefter train since 2006, when he was calling his project Steve Hefter and Friends (and Friends of Friends). He’s since shortened his name to the clever St. Even–even though this is his second full-length under the moniker, this one’s his self-titled work.
His vocals are warm and engaging: his emotive baritone can sound pain-stricken, hopeful, and confident all in the same song. His years of writing and performing have earned him a quiet control of his range, which makes the melodies that he chooses to go for seem effortless. Even at his dour, Dan Mangan-esque moments, he’s got a little bit of a wry smile going on. The performances are memorable in their distinctness; his is not an interchangeable voice, and these are not disposable performances. Many of the melodies are beautiful not only for their well-craftedness, but for their earnest, nuanced, often subtly-imperfect performances. They’ve got character.
The arrangements are also full of life and verve: Hefter doesn’t like to have each instrument play straight through the song. Instead, he fits parts together like a jigsaw puzzle, making a sprawling chamber orchestra/New Orleans Jazz line into an awe-inspiring musical Rube Goldberg machine. This creates a joyful uncertainty, giving the listener little clue what wonder will be behind the next corner. Will it be the jubilant New Orleans piano of “Don’t Hold Your Breath”? The woozy horns of “Until Now Forever”? The odd rhythms of “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” that make it feel as if the whole song is leaning forward? Hefter keeps you guessing in the best way. You will sing along with songs that don’t seem like you should be able to sing along; Hefter can make complex things fun, and fun things complex.
The “fun things complex” really comes into play with the lyrics, the weight of which is incredible for a singer/songwriter album that’s written in major keys and with intricate arrangements. Not many would layer another layer of depth onto what’s already going on, but Hefter goes right there in “Been a Little Better,” “Until Now Forever” and “Homesick.” His ruminations on the struggles of life feature lines that stick out in the best of ways, grabbing my attention and making me think about them. Because much of their gravitas comes from their delivery, I won’t spill them here, but I can point you toward “Until Now Forever” and “Really Real” for places where this might come upon you.
The art for the album is beautiful as well, with the case arriving in a burlap bag with gorgous print on both sides. The case itself has art too, which keeps proving that Hefter is really special in his attention to detail and that Gorbie International is a doing a wonderful thing for music. The other record label that put out this record is Party Damage Records, which only has five releases under its belt, but is already climbing my list of labels to watch. They opened up their catalog with the excellent dance-oriented indie-pop of Keep It Safe by Wild Ones; they’ve moved on to recognizing the immense talents of St. Even. Hard to argue with that track record.
St. Even is a sophisticated, intricate, beguiling album that gave me an immediate kick but kept the rest of the iceberg submerged. With some careful attention, the rest of the beauty became apparent–and I’m still discovering it with current listens. Absolutely wonderful. Highly recommended.