Review : Shannon Stephens - Pull It Together
PopmattersPull It Together is, at first listen, a refreshingly clear-eyed record from Shannon Stephens. It shrugs off layers of orchestration from past records, and instead Stephens assembles a crack band behind to create dusty, lean, and often blues-inspired foundations over which she lays her sweet vocals. And those vocals are at their absolute strongest here. She’s brimming with confidence here, and her voice is rangy and powerful as a result.
At her best here, she channels the likes of Bonnie Raitt—albeit without the slide guitar—revealing a deep soul that is filled as much with hope as it is with bitterness. The expansive “Down the Drain and It’s Gone” is the most brooding moment on the record, but also the most bracing. Her whispery verses lead to tense, grinding, yet triumphant choruses where she belts out every word with a eyes-squeezed-shut passion. Meanwhile, on the bright sway of “What Love Looks Like” or the power-pop leanings of “Buddy Up to the Bully”, Stephens’ voice is more tempered and playful, sweet without being hard, vulnerable without sounding self-conscious.
Pull It Together is surely an album of the moment, one that does revel in personal hope and love while also tackling more pragmatic concerns, like economic hardship. On “Out of Sight” she wishes God signed her checks because “he has all the money after all.” She then follows that with a much bigger, almost shapeless worry, wondering, if “He’s the one that made my life, how about making it less difficult?” In moments like these on the record, we see the trouble on the edges, the tension swirling around these self-assured tracks. The best example comes in “Faces Like Ours”, her duet with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It’s a wry and darkly funny take on class and race privilege that plays like a stripped-down campfire diddy. “We’re going to be okay,” Billy creaks. “At least we have white skin.” They’ve also got “rich friends” and they’re “still good looking.” It’s a song about unfair safety nets, for sure, and it’s also the most incisive song on the record, sharpened as much with a clever tongue as it is with its own anger....full text
SsgmusicBedtime can be a fretful ordeal. A whirlwind of mental activity cockblocks your sweet dreams like a bank teller hold up at the GABA receptor sites. One of the constituents of Absinthe (Thujone) antagonizes GABA receptors and gives your brain a little stimulant pep talk. Now, go impress your bartender. This behind-the-scenes chemistry puts you to sleep, it gets you laid if the pheromone cards are dealt right and it’s partly responsible for whether or not we connect with our music.
Shannon Stephen‘s new album, Pull it Together, induces sleep nicely. If you’re having trouble reaching the REM phases, four out of five doctors recommend it. Why all the dry textbook analogies, you may ask? After all, we’re not talking about faceless cultures in a Petri dishes but a female singer-songwriter who has performed with Sufjan Stephens (in the band Marzuki). She wrote her first song at the age of 7 and in between guitar and banjo ballads is teetering on spoken word poetry.
You’ve answered the question. These comparisons provide contrast, which is what this album lacks. Like one of those gaudy fractal posters your unhip Grandma bought you from Wal-Mart, many of the songs are awash in their own recursion (e.g. self-similarity across scale). In an overly formulaic way they become a mockery of themselves; it’s Plain Jane playing the clitar with her predictable pickle… on every song. “That’s what love looks like / I know it isn’t fair to women everywhere / God knows what they have to bear.” These lyrics from “What Love Looks Like” read like a banal collection of junior high poetry entries. They’re not terrible, but they’re hollow.
Friends and family are no doubt proud to share Shannon’s creations, and her Youtube fans seem to be representing the home team. As ambient background accompaniment in a coffee house or as a mantelpiece near the fireplace in a country cabin, Pull it Together works great. It assaults neither the cerebrum nor the atrium....full text
ChristiancenturyOn her third album, Shannon Stephens reins in her chamber-folk experimentalism in favor of a bluesy little band that takes her songs to unexpected places. Her sound remains relatively subdued, yet it grooves and pops and even swaggers.
Stephens’s songcraft is best at its most complex when her melodies and chord progressions dart around a little. “Care of You” is a standout; it quickly locates a darker corner of Americana, throws it a few pleasing curve balls and wraps up in three minutes flat. The disappointing “Buddy Up to the Bully,” however, starts in a predictable blues-rock spot and simply stays put....full text
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