When I was in an art-rock band in high school, we managed to agree on only three cover songs in our four-year history: Coldplay’s “Parachutes,” Fall Out Boy’s “Dance Dance,” and “Hotel California.” (If you can figure out what those have in common, let me know.) My latest endeavor with the cover song was much more coherent, as I got 22 bands to contribute to a Postal Service covers album. I’m still incredibly thrilled with the final product, although I certainly do not want to run a similar project any time soon.
Folk-pop duo Jenny & Tyler, who were featured on Never Give Up, have put together their own covers album in For Freedom. As the title would suggest, the 7-song album is a project that benefits International Justice Mission‘s work to end slavery. Not only do you get their excellent arrangement skills, songs you love, and guest musicians (Sara Groves! JJ Heller! A virtual choir of hundreds of J&T fans!), you get to support justice in the world. What are you waiting for?
“We Will Become Silhouettes” is included here in remastered form, sounding even more gorgeous than before. It would easily be my favorite (and not just for sentimental value; the crescendo from beginning to end is heart-pounding) except for the absolutely stunning “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Jenny & Tyler temper Bono’s original desperation with their warm, gentle arrangement skills, using oboe, clarinet, and cello to create an alternate vision of what that place we’re all looking for sounds like. If that wasn’t enough, they enlist the excellent Sara Groves and a choir of fans to guest vocal, creating a simply masterful take on the song. I could listen to this one all day.
They turn Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” from an angsty rager into a twee-pop tune, complete with glockenspiel. “The Sound of Silence” is suitably haunting, with their voices and clarinet (aside: I just love that they give the clarinet good press) giving a new tension to Simon & Garfunkel’s original. “The Scientist” includes a harpsichord/autoharp sound, but no piano; it’s an ambitious move that pays off.
Overall, Jenny & Tyler have set their unique and particular vision on these tracks, and that’s all that I ask from covers. The fact that the tunes are alternately heartbreaking and heart-pounding is a testament to the skill with which they can realize that vision. Highly recommended.
Christa Wells‘ music is weighty without feeling heavy, as the singer/songwriter balances heft and grace with ease on Feed Your Soul. Wells relies on smooth arrangements and incredible vocal performances to create and sustain that tension. Songwriters like Sara Groves are the best comparison for Wells’ sound: mature, grounded songs with strong melodies and a melancholy streak.
When Wells delves into that sadness which looks longingly toward hopefulness, her songs soar. Closer “Being Loved” is a powerful tune distilled to a simple truth (“being loved is a hard thing to take/I will try”). “You Are My Defense” shows off the complete comfort that she has in her own skin, musically and lyrically. The opening of “Come Close Now” somehow balances being objectively gentle musically (piano/vocals/tapped drums) and subjectively crushing emotionally. Wells knows how to suck the listener in with a minimum of fuss, and that’s a deceptively difficult skill to master.
When Feed Your Soul heads in louder, funkier territory such as “Vanity Vanity” and the title track, the results are less immediately satisfying. I’d much prefer to keep hearing Wells play simple piano and level me emotionally with tunes like “For My Child” and “This Thing Is Not Going to Break You.” The exception is “The Way That You Love Me,” which funnels her emotional command into an upbeat love song much in the same way that Brooke Fraser turned out the wonderful “Something in the Water.”
Wells’ Feed Your Soul is a beautiful, soul-baring record that works with seemingly little effort. The amount of skill, hard work, and time that go into a record like that are almost never recognized, so I’m celebrating those elements here. Wells knows how to write a compelling song, and she knows that the way to turn it from “good” to “great” isn’t always to add more arrangement. I look forward to hearing more from Wells.
Caitlin Marie Bell does simplicity a very different way. At the extreme, the Americana singer/songwriter goes totally barebones by singing traditional murder ballad “Omie Wise” with only staccato percussion as accompaniment. Bell’s resonant alto voice sells the song perfectly, bringing an Irish flair to the work. Bell relies on her strong pipes throughout Blood and The Water, as she doesn’t employ anything more than a fingerpicked guitar, stringed bass, and gentle percussion to set the backdrop.
The most impressive thing about this spartan setup is not the live feel, but that Bell packs so much personality into the sound. Tracks like “River Song” and “Pallet on the Floor” slot her right in next to some of the giants of the genre both in sound and quality: the former pairs Bell’s lilting voice with the sound of a thunderstorm, while the latter displays a complex intimacy in lyric and vocal delivery. Both will stick with you long past their run time.
Both tunes spin together a small world in a few minutes–that’s hard for any songwriter to do, much less one who isn’t backed by a huge, involved band. The tunes on Blood and the Water possess a gravitas and maturity far beyond what I expect from a debut. These weighty tunes are very worth checking out for anyone who’s a fan of Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and other female Americana singer/songwriters.
The best moments of singer/songwriter Steph Casey‘s Whisper and Holler fall on the “whisper” side of that equation: when Casey’s songs are stripped down to sparse acoustic guitar and voice, her work shines. “Heavy Warm Heart” and the title track are lent an immediacy by their simplicity, as it feels like Casey had the melodies burning a hole in her pocket and just had to get them out there. The delicate guitarwork and engaging vocal tone mesh beautifully, creating magic.
There are some more full arrangements that shine as well: lead track “Nice to Almost Know You” gives off a relaxed, back-porch vibe in its assured/regretful stance looking back on a failed relationship. “Kapiti”builds out a simple Jack Johnson-esque beach vibe into a highly enjoyable track. Both of those tunes fall right in line with the ethos that characterizes the highlights: take one thing and do it well. Added bonus: Casey is a Kiwi. (Australia and New Zealand are just excellent these days.)
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.