Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Stefanie Keys - Open Road

Open Road, the third album from singer/songwriter Stefanie Keys, draws from a deep well of musical influences to make its impact on the listener. Keys’ artistic inclinations cover a wide array of forms within the Americana genre – there are strong strains of rock and roll, blues, folk, and country coloring this ten song work. It is natural that, growing up around bluegrass music, Keys would pursue such ends, but her muse couldn’t be confined. Keys surrounds herself with a first class collection of musical collaborators, particularly Dave Shul on guitar. Shul provides effective backing vocals throughout as well, but Keys carries much of the album’s vocal work on her shoulders alone. She is the true star of Open Road, but it is for much more than her singing alone. The songwriting on Open Road is a cut above other efforts in the genre and will stay in the memory after it ends.  

The title track will certainly sound lyrically familiar to longtime music fans, but Keys’ invocation of tropes isn’t hollow and imitative. She enlivens these time-tested images with personality and inspiration. Keys is a singer who is with every word and the clear-eyed vision for phrasing she exhibits adds layers of meaning to the words. The band dovetails their performance perfectly around her vocal and manages to lightly touch on a variety of musical moods without ever reining the song into one particular style. “No Tomorrow” is a much grittier and hard-hitting track than the opener. The song’s message is a relatively common variation on the “carpe diem” theme, but like the first song, Keys distinguishes it with the white-knuckled passion she brings to her performance. 

The relaxed and melodic grace of “Sleeping Lady” might distract listeners from the song’s sturdy, economical construction. There isn’t a wasted note in the song and Keys’ vocal carries the fine lyrics with just the right emotional amplitude. A delicate mood sustains the success of this song and pushing it too hard might have ruined its potential. It builds to a particularly rousing finale. Her social consciousness emerges some on “Cold Day”. She shows off more of her songwriting skills with this track – few songwriters could write about these issues with such perfect balance between powerful observational skills and personal resonance. The musical arrangement finds its own perfect balance between atmospherics and melodic strength. She fires up “Hey” with simmering and soulful blues vocals. The light application of vocal effects helps strengthen the mood and the band responds with a sympathetic performance that enriches her vocal.

“Highway to Your Soul” has an unexpected anthemic quality and hits just as hard as the album’s second track “No Tomorrow”. Keys unleashes the fires of hell itself with her vocal, but it isn’t an unbridled desertion of technique as she shows considerable finesse coupled with that passion during the verses. The album’s final great moment comes with “Amos Crain”. It is obvious from the title that this is Keys’ nod to the tradition of lyrical character study and it succeeds quite well because it meets all of its benchmarks and offers something new. Her lyrics are subtle and well-crafted enough that, ultimately, they reveal as much about the narrator as they do Crain.
Open Road is a bracing and satisfying musical experience. There are few singers working in any genre as skillful and earthy as Stefanie Keys.  

9 out of 10 stars  

Joshua Stryde

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