Thursday, March 3, 2016

Sing, Ladies!

In her self-titled solo debut, Brandy Zdan revs her motor a little bit compared with her previous work as half of the duo Twilight Hotel. Still leaning heavily on introspection (although "Cut 'n' Run" opens with the directive, "Get outta your head and back to reality"), she brings distortion and some quicker tempos to bear in striking out on her own.

Much of Brandy Zdan concerns itself with relationships -- in the aforementioned "Cut 'n' Run" she declares her own commitment to her partner while not being sure of his. The closer, "More of a Man," holds a similar idea, as Zdan has been "fightin' till my knuckles bleed" while "you've been sitting around smokin' weed." She's not going to wait around on him to show up, but when he finally does, she challenges him to be "more of a man than me."

That closer brings some nice organ notes to the rock sound of the album, highlighting the wide range of instruments Zdan uses along with help from some members of My Morning Jacket. "Running for a Song" has a techno vibe that may be paying a sly homage to Flock of Seagulls "I Ran" with its synth-y opening. "What's It All For" opens with a slow bluesy pulse, but Zdan's verses are a flurry of words, only reining in for the chorus.

Zdan has a flexible voice that can float lightly in some places, either pairing with the atmosphere of a particular song ("Median Artery") or working in counterpart, But it can also turn husky for the smoky "Dawn Is My Enemy" or assertively brassy in "More of a Man." I never listened to Twilight Motel, but if this debut indicates what Zdan can bring to the table, then she'll be on the purchase list from now on.
If you told me that someone built a tunnel through time to 1982 and swiped a song called "Like the Dream of It" from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, I'd have to think awhile before I said that's crazy talk. The first track on Brooke Annibale's The Simple Fear album offers the same questioning of certainties Springsteen's characters voice, in the same kind of plain speech. "Questioning what I thought I knew," the refrain opens. "If I'd seen it coming I'd have thought it through. Built up to ruin by this simple fear/ losing everything that I hold dear."

Fear stays in the same slow-to mid-tempo folk groove, leaning towards a country sound on "Find My Way" and muscling up on "Alright." In the latter Annibale assures her significant other that their commitment to each other can weather a number of external storms. But on "Answers," she wonders if she can give words to her uncertainty, or that it would do any good if she could: "You're still looking for answers/Inside of my mouth/But the words you keep looking for/Aren't gonna come out."

Annibale leans a little too heavily on the ubiquitous indie-folky-slurry style in her vocals, and its artifice can leach some of the impact from her words. The sound tends more towards breathy than fragile and delicate. But even given that and that the rest of the album doesn't quite equal "Dream," Annibale's fourth studio album is worth the listen and from my point of view worth the buy.
An inheritance is something bequeathed by those in the past for the use of those living today. While it's not infinitely malleable, it's best used in a manner or form not completely separate from the one in which it came.

For Audrey Assad, the Inheritance she features on her fourth full-length album are the hymns of years past. As someone who creates Christian-themed and spiritual music in modern styles, Assad doesn't find modernity incapable of rendering sacred music. But her Catholic faith keeps her mindful that neither Christianity nor worship music started in 2005. Her own compositions are frequently literary, reflecting her wide interests in reading poetry, and she has a connection with the intricate wordsmithing of the old hymns and their lyrics.

Assad chose 9 hymns based partly on fan input during the album's crowdfunding campaign, and Inheritance also includes two of her own songs. And although she receives them and their poetry, spirituality and message, like one who inherits she then uses them in arrangements that allow the 21st century its own voice in the songs. "How Can I Keep From Singing" carries some faint echoes of roots-rock sound to it, but not to such a degree they overpower its 19th century roots. "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" maintains the same simple vocals of its first recordings, put into a setting that could have been on the soundtrack for Lord of the Rings. Creative instrumentation and production allow the ancient "Ubi Caritas" to call to mind a chorus of monks chanting behind Assad singing. "It Is Well With My Soul" begins with just Assad's voice and piano, but adds new voices as it continues, lending an impression that the declaration of one person of faith can inspire that of others.

Inheritance features two original compositions. "Even Unto Death," though it has the same timeless quality as the classic hymns, was written by Assad and Matt Maher in light of the news of Christian martyrs in the Middle East. Assad -- herself the daughter of Syrian-born parents -- said she wrote as she hoped she would pray if she were facing death for her faith.

Inheritance is a powerful album in its own right, and a wonderful statement that the wisdom of those who have sung before us in the faith is neither outdated nor sacrosanct. It can speak to us today, and it can speak in today's language as well.

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