Monday, March 25, 2019

Francine Honey - To Be Continued LP


You can hear some of the former civil servant in Francine Honey’s latest collection To Be Continued… coming through in her intense interest in our humanity and the suggestion of community overarching much of her material. Many of the album’s eleven songs are lit internally by the implication Honey is sharing her personal experiences with us, how they changed her, and inviting us to glean what we might in hearing them. This willingness to shed shields so others might know our secret hearts is often one of the defining elements of great art. Francine Honey is a more than capable entertainer, but there are numerous moments on To Be Continued… revealing her as much more than a mere “song and dance woman”. Those moments come in songs clearly reaching beyond the purview of popular song and attempting to make a lasting statement of what she has seen, how it made her feel, and how it transformed her.

“Snowflakes in My Eyelashes” is one of the earliest examples of that artistry at work. Essentially a poem set to music, the imagery is pinpoint and never clich├ęd, though Honey skillfully invokes a set of familiar emotions. The slow build of the arrangement never weighs down the song – the sparse placement of instrumentation gives Honey plenty of space to weave her vocal magic. Her clear attentiveness to every line helps make her stand out in the modern music world, few show such across the board discipline, but Honey makes each line matter in a way that makes the stakes seem higher than they might otherwise. “Stay” is an expert weave of country weeper with some rock guitar tossed in for good measure. The guitar work largely restricts itself to biting or emotional fills dropped in throughout the song’s duration, but there are a couple of occasions where the six string rips out some piercing lead work that punctuates the tune. Piano, a mainstay instrument on To Be Continued…, leaves a melodic mark on the song as well.

You can’t say the title song is any one thing. It has aspects of a folk song and packs a ton of narrative into less than five minutes, but the light touches of horn haunting the backdrop of its mix and moody piano contributions place it in another realm entirely. In the end, “To Be Continued” is a superbly written song with a satisfying literary bent, yet never pretentious or stilted. Honey uncovers the meaning of her reflections and listeners are invited to witness her discoveries but, ultimately, you will relate for your own past and the seeming promises of years long gone by. “Honey” changes things up with a rolling blues rife with specific details that make it burn even hotter for listeners. It’s a real pleasure to hear how Honey leans into the chorus vocal and achieves everything she wants without ever coming off hamfisted. There’s some real subtlety in the songwriting for attentive listeners.

“Shacked-Up Sweetie” is a package deal, including both the recording and an accompanying music video, but the song stands on its own as a first piece slice of country rock with a blues flourish. The arrangement keeps “its head down” for the most part, charging ahead in a straight forward fashion, and the piano underpinning the rhythm guitar gives it some extra bounce. Lead guitar flashes to life at all the right points and Honey wisely underplays the vocal a little rather than attacking it in a bucket of blood blues queen style. Make no mistake, however, the video more than serves its purpose – it gives the song a visual story to link with the recording and stands on its own, as well, as an appealing promotional clip for the album.

Rebecca Beasley 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Stephanie Rose Sprout (EP) and Luxury (Single)

“Sprout” the title song for Stephanie Rose’s second studio release, gets her sophomore effort off to a rousing start while going places many of her peers wouldn’t dare follow. She’s definitely reaching for an old school vibe during the song’s first half, but she’s venturing elsewhere soon enough by incorporating brass into the song’s arrangement. What might sound, on initial impression, as being woefully out of place on a country album actually works as an astonishing stab towards a new sound for the genre. Longtime fans of the form will recall that, as far back as Western Swing music and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, horns can make a difference in a style not often known for that sound. “Rusted Love” is much more business as usual, in some ways, but Rose is equal to revitalizing this style as well – her take on classic country flavored AOR rock has a physical, involving sound and the song’s arrangement coupled with her lyrics has an almost cinematic air.

“Sprout” bristles and bounds with life. It’s a nice feature of Rose’s music that, even when she’s singing about very adult topics, her vocals and music alike are embracing life and an upbeat swing throughout. There is one notable exception to this and even that approaches the same aesthetic, albeit from a different angle. It’s hard to consistently pull off a marriage of serious material with such vibrant musicality, but the best can do and even the understated musical touches in this song, like organ, end up only enhancing its soulfulness.

“Rusted Love” is another great lyric with an accompanying great arrangement. Rose, on this one, goes a much different way than the EP opener but nonetheless keeps close to her roots – the same spirit inhabiting the first song gives this one life as well. She is more than capable of making her voice work within a rock influenced arrangement, but Rose doesn’t go too far – the connections to her country background still shine through.

She shines in a much different way with the track “Luxury” and it raises an already excellent EP up several notches alone. Piano and violin are the critical musical pieces making this arrangement fly and they find a more than worthy performance partner in Rose’s best vocal on Sprout. Her voice encompasses worlds. There is passion, heartache, enormous empathy, and even a sense of victory glowing throughout her vocal and it lights the song up with inspired life.

“Old Soul” has a fat bass pulse at its center that gives the song an irrepressible heartbeat and the rhythm section, as a whole, provides Rose with the platform she needs for one of Sprout’s most likable vocals. The lyrics have a lot of charm as well, especially some well chosen rhymes, but there’s self-knowledge and wisdom underlying the song as well.

“Same Old Same Old” concludes Stephanie Rose’s second EP release in a restrained, thoughtful way, but it isn’t difficult to hear the playfulness in this performance. She makes great use of harmonica in this song without ever steering the track into any specific musical camp and it’s tailored to just the right length without a single identifiable wasted word or note. It’s well nigh impossible to dislike this release. Stephanie Rose may be at the start of her career, but she writes and performs like someone born to follow this path and you’ll find yourself happy to make the trip with her


Rebecca Beasley