Crawdaddy (NS #1, Winter 1993)
---by Paul Williams
I didn't precisely choose the records included in his essay, this one in particular chose me, catching my attention (I met a guy who runs a small record company and he sent me some things: this CD jumped out from the group and demanded to be heard again and again) at a moment when I was in a mood both to listen and to write about the experience of listening. The point is, I guess, that I am defined nor only by my favorite album of the moment, but by the cross-section of stuff I'm currently into. I have an almost-eighteen-year-old son who is currently enthusiastic about Arrested Developement, Pearl Jam, and Garth Brooks. This is normal, though you won't find a radio station that plays all three of these talented and popular artists. We have to be our own radio stations now, punching buttons in the car and stacking CDs on the home player, maybe making compilation tapes for the Walkman if we're so inclined. We mix and match, painting subtle or blatant sell-portraits as we do so. I am not trying to paint a self-portrait here. I am trying to paint a portrait of the universe, at this instant in time, based on what I see when I look out the window. Window of music. This 1991 album that just showed up in my life is part of what I see hear feel this month. It pleases me. I'm not writing about it because I want to introduce you to a new artist. I'm writing about it because it makes me happy.
I like the songs (some more than others). I like Sonya Hunter's singing - the sound of her voice and the way she makes use of it, her performance I like the arrangements. I like the way the album hangs together as a whole, the "feel" of listening to it.
A good voice is something new under the sun. Once you meet it, your world is bigger. In a certain sense a voice and a personality are the same thing. Or voice and individuality. An artist's voice (paint on canvas. words on paper) is at best, the soul of that person, shared with someone else at this moment of contact. Monet's voice-unmistakable. Shakespeare's voice. Billie's voice. Chaplin's voice (the voice of silence. the voice of face). It surprises me that this modest album has grown on me to the point where I'm not ashamed to speak of it in terms of what art is all about for me. It's about meeting real people. Voices that touch me. Voices I listen for, look for, wait for. Voices I remember.
Thank God for new voices. Thank God for old voices, too. On this album, I am starting to realize Sonya Hunter stakes her claim to possibly be an old voice, old musical friend, someday. Hello. A future Neil Young. perhaps, and people will say...how come she doesn't do another album like "Favorite Short Stories"? Oh well. I'm not saying this is a great record. But ii's a wonderful record. There's a subtle distinction.
Three things that help it to be wonderful, help it to be an effective introduction: its length, its ensemble, and its thematic unity.
Its length: it's short. You can get the full experience in half an hour (31 minutes), which especially when you're first meeting someone is a real advantage over hour-long albums like Cockburn's, Young's and Dylan's. There are eleven songs here, and they all feel whole and complete (except "View From A Sidewalk" which isn't supposed to), though most of them are less than three minutes long. Refreshing.
The ensemble: musicians are used with some of the sparkle and intelligence that occurred on Bob Dylan's early ensemble recordings. These are people with voices of their own. and the are encouraged to use them full heart while at the same tine they have the advantage that here there is a strong guiding musical vision for them to be themselves within. Because of this strong vision, different sets of musicians and different combinations of instruments can exist side by side very effectively. "Once I Had A Sweetheart" features a brilliant Chuck Prophet rave-up on electric guitar, "Foggy Moon" showcases Steven Strauss on upright bass. Ben Demorath on oboe, and Chris Cacavas on accordion; along with Sonya on acoustic guitar, a fantastic combo. "The Frost Will Melt" is piano-based with bass and percussion; "Feathers" is just acoustic guitar and upright bass. "Not Yet," guitar and cello; five other songs feature electric guitar/bass/percussion combinations with various excellent musicians; and the last song, "New Year," is the only solo performance (acoustic guitar). Good arrangements and well-chosen instrumentation and songs and sequencing can turn an album into a tapestry, some kind of rich remarkable texture, unity in diversity. It happens here.
The thematic unity is partial and understated and it works very well. It is announced with marvelous flourish in the opening track, the only "cover" on the album (song not written by the songwriter/performer, in this case a traditional, probably Irish. folk lament): "Once I Had a Sweetheart (but now I have none)," done with gloriously intense rock and roll (or electric blues) keening and hypnotic marching band rhythms, all supporting Sonya's cool, devastatingly believable vocal. She seems to move effortlessly between detachment and desperation, perhaps because (for the character she's portraying) each is a mask for the other. Whatever. The point is that she plays this character (note the album title; these songs, true or not, are presented as narratives, as fictions), the jilted woman, with irresistible conviction. The character shows up again on the other three standout tracks nicely spaced through the album (1. 4. 8. 11): "Wedding," "Not Yet,' "New Year." The closing song, "New Year." is subtle in it's expression of the theme (balancing the opener's flamboyance) only her voice makes it clear that she's singing about loss of love. Great lyrics: "No resolution/My plans have all gone/A good vacation/Who doesn't need one?" Great singing. The singing on all four of these jilted woman songs is exceptional and anyway the effect is that the album grabs hold of listener, on first listen (and second and third) it is clearly about something, and communicates that something uniquely and indelibly. We are happy to give the other songs a chance to grow on us while we walt breathlessly to hear these performances again.
The other seven songs all have their charms. particularly the vocal and instrumental performances. The "jilted" songs showcase the bluesy side of Hunter's voice and personality; there is also a lyrical, playful side displayed on songs Like "Feathers" ("Get your free feathers here!"- my teenage daughter immediately responded to this one). "Paint.' and "Foggy Moon". The elasticity and expressiveness of her voice as she subtly changes mood and attitude, between and within songs, is striking. "Foggy Moon" a personal perspective on crime in the city, is my favorite after the big four already mentioned. "Break the lock, come right in/Browse around, steal something." she sings cheerily and sadly. Catchy tune. The hook is the chorus,"Trust is dangerous...", is memorable. even haunting. I like the light, sure way she sings against the pulse of the upright bass. The phrasing and timing of her performance illuminate these songs, making her seem at times a better songwriter than she really is. "The Frost Will Melt" is a useful example of the risks of Disjointed Narrative Technique; the intriguing pieces of implied story that don't quite fit together have to not fit together in just the right way (Stipe a master of the technique, Neil Young more of an intuitive primitive a hit-or-miss genius). Many aspects of this song are terrific but I find it hard to love because I can't quite juggle together the title phrase and the "obedient dog" images and the Jezebel reference and end up with any kind of satisfying sense of what she's trying to tell me. Is she flirting, or being humiliated? Is she the Jezebel (I do get that it's a song about talking to oneself), and if so why? I'm left hanging. Some fine vocal moments, though. Check out "View From Sidewalk" for an example of Sonya as songwriter dancing Just out of reach of my comprehension and making it work for me, good DNT. I like the words even though I'm not sure what they are.
Straightforward narrative techniques still have their place, of course, and the standout short story on the album. "Wedding." use ironic understatement and unusual dramatic perspective (song sung by a woman involved in a prenuptial affair with the groom) to splendid effect. Funny, deadly performance. This and "Sweetheart" are the performances that hooked me on first listen to this album and brought me back for more. But the tracks that have weathered the best for me are the plaintive (definitely haunting) "Not Yet" and the equally sad, equally delicious "New Year." Melody plays a big part here. Good melodies are pleasing to the soul. Good melody combined with good story (conveyed by good performance) keeps me coming back real well. Sing it for me again please.
The album is highly recommended, not for promise but for what it powerfully and richly delivers. As for promise, I recently heard Sonya sing live (opening for Television at the Great American Music Hall). She was killer the first night, way off the
second (opening act is a tough gig, and anyway in my experience real performing artists blow hot and cold while "entertainers" stay tepidly consistent). But what I want to tell you, apart from see her sing if you get a chance to, is that I heard more than enough outstanding new songs at her shows to know she's got a next album in her that should be better than the first, and probably many more after that if she can hang in there. Not an easy thing to do, of course, as one tries to pay the rent and keep the faith and catch the ear of those music biz investment banker guys (still guy! mostly). But I wish her Godspeed and perseverance. This first album (co-produced by Sonya Hunter and Patrick Thomas) is a textbook example of how it's possible to make a great-sounding
record on a tiny budget. Also a textbook example of how hard it is to sell any records on a tiny budget, no matter how wonderful the album is. Oh well. If voice is personality it is also spirit, and we can hope that this woman's strong, distinctive voice is indicative of an equivalent strength of spirit that will allow her, somehow, to keep singing and making records,
I want to hear more.
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CMJ New Music Report
---June 28, 1991
There tends to be some damning fault to most well-intentioned singer songwriter works--the vocals suck, or the "accompaniment" is a poorly plucked acoustic, or the songs are so sincere one can't help but laugh. Sonya Hunter is a regular Ms. Songbird, her glass-smooth vocals are frail but worldly-wise, and even without hearing the lyrics the personas of urban-folk diva and barstool yarnweaver are melded. Hunter's lyrics reinforce these Appalachia-cum.Tenderloin visions, with an air of gaiety and frolic or of helpless mourning. Very grown-up stuff, but only because Sonya gets under the skin of topics (like relationships, apathy, loneliness, etc.) that others skim over or approach with such stodgy, clumsy self-importance that any life gets trampled out. Besides Sonya's acoustic mullings, a cavalcade of Heyday stars (Chuck Prophet, Chris Cacavas, Wade Grubbs, Pat Thomas) chime in with backseat electric twangings; whether it's the Gaelic-sounding lament of "Once I Had A Sweetheart" and "Wedding," or the tumbling, rollicking gait of "The Frost Will Melt" or "Conversation," or the barroom blues of "Foggy Moon." the instruments are attuned to the vocals, poised and devastating with sparse, well-aimed crashes of chords.
(Top of Listing)
Emerging out of the San Francisco neofolk scene, Sonya Hunter has put together a unique set of accessible subtle songs about life's little moments, filled with vivid imagery. The album ranges from traditional ("Once I Had a Sweetheart") to 1920s swing style ("Foggy Moon") to acoustic guitar and voice ("Feathers"), with Hunter's strong, mature voice.
This insightful album is made better by Hunter's skillful guitar playing and a group of talented musicians to help her out. Chuck Prophet, Vudi and Jeffrey Trott (World Party) play electric guitar on different tracks and on one of the best, "Not Yet." Kim Osterwalder plays cello.
The lyrics are realistic and thought provoking. "Conversation" deals with the problem of meaningless talk and chitchat. She wishes she 'could sing through the day." "View from a Sidewalk," a Suzanne Vega style song, is quite effective in evoking mental pictures. "Fault Line" detail her concern, not phobia, with living in a danger zone. I want to hear more lyrics like "I don't like guns. My favorite shot is brandy in a coffee cup."
Of the 11 tracks on this album, 10 are written by Hunter and most are under three minutes in length. My only real complaint with this album if that it is only 32 minutes long. Sonya Hunter best describes her work" as a patchwork quilt. It's like a lot of clothes that I've worn in the past -- funky but nice."
---Jim Morman (Ashland. KY)
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