Bandcamp Gold Album Review-Sara Hallie Richardson-Phoenix
Being an artist is about growth. By the time you have moved everything you dreamed about doing past the finish line (as much of it as you could get across) new plans have already started to take shape. Artistic growth doesn’t have an end, it’s a bookmark and when the book is done it’s used on the next one.
This is what makes Sara Hallie Richardson’s new album Phoenix not simply beautiful but tragically so. At the conclusion of its elaborate eight song journey we find ourselves awake with nowhere to build. Phoenix is a dream that we wake up from. The ambitiousness built into the chemistry between producer/co-arranger Sean Morin and engineer/producer Noah Cole and vocalist/songwriter Sara Hallie Richardson can’t really be replicated live. You would lose the sound of playing children right behind the piano at the start of Reprise. All the chamber singing and string section solos, if this was done live honestly it would be the march of a sonic army.
The format of each song is quite similar. We start out starkly minimal locked into Sara Hallie who has some punch-in-the-face impactful lyrics on display. She opens Reprise with “Don’t mistake my care for a caretaker. I can’t make your pain go away. I can’t change what you wish you weren’t.” After that opening you can’t possibly look away. As the piano plays and the children in the background do the same, it’s a spellbinding moment. That is when the fun begins, Sara Hallie is our rock. Soft and sultry, wounded and thoughtful, always genuine and Sean Morin knows every dark empty space for the perfect placement of another musical element always choosing to weave it in with care. Not just once but over and over until the finale of each song, until it becomes like a coiled spring bursting forth with bottled energy: Hand claps, choral singing, STRINGS, STRINGS, STRINGS (thank you Amarantos Quartet), Piano, snares, bass, it layers and explodes forth while we count on Sara Hallie for shelter.
Morin knows that you can lead an armada of sonic pieces on top of Richardson’s voice and everything will be ok. The stung introspection in her vocal performance as she says things like “How we do we grow up without feeling old?” on If You Asked Me make her a clear protagonist. We are not talking about Billy Holiday Lady In Satin chilling but even as her voice is reaching new heights the lyrics carry with it the fear of collapsing into a life that is too much. So Morin keeps adding layers until it feels like inebriation and confusion…and then it’s over. Next song. Melancholy starts again as the next song begins.
This mixture of intensely orchestral music and cutting lyrical sincerity create an experience a lot of artists do not aspire to reach. I was trying to describe it as I ranted to my wife and I rambled about watching the most beautiful butterfly you’ve ever seen recite poetry. As amazing as that moment would be, melancholy sets in when you realize you’ll never see this again and it’s unlikely anyone will believe you did see it. Phoenix is like this. When I try and tell friends about how special, really special, it is…what do I say? Somehow all of these talented people pulled out the Ouija board and connected to something really moving. Like the title track it feels like a breakup album that smiles back at what it was and for an ever too brief moment what it is; creating and retiring a formula that never existed.
The children playing on Reprise and the chorus of Crime of My Life might be an indicator that at least some of the people involved in making Phoenix love Fiona Apple as much as I do (the kids playing during the song is a jarring move Fiona Apple pulled off on her 2012 song Werewolf). That never feels like a burden, just a great jumping off prompt.
Jury is still out on how many important albums the Portland Maine music scene can sustain at once. At this point Spose KGFREEZE and Lyle Divinsky have important releases out. The bigger question is whether something this uniquely dense and heartfelt has an audience here. When a project has listening layers it creates confusion as a result and not everyone loves to unwrap a present. Great news for me is that I don’t have any of these concerns connected to my experience. Paid six dollars(www.bullmoose.com) for eight songs and by doing so I supported my best local music retailer and a richly talented performer. For six dollars I will retain a set of songs that will go nowhere but up in value for me. Every listen yields new sound clashes originally missed, sitting in the song gorgeous all this time but unnoticed. The more you press the play button the more these songs take on different emotional perspectives; the sad ones seem to smile and the happy ones seem more sullen than remembered. Her songwriting here is like play writing built with room for listener interpretation and alternative relationships to each song.
I take Phoenix seriously because everyone who worked on it took it seriously. If a job well done in music yielded positive results Sean Morin should be able to sell his own T-shirts after this. Sara Hallie Richardson should float off into a sea of career possibilities wielding her voice like the weapon it is. I guess it’s up to us now. She’s done with it. Our job as active consumers of music is not just to digest this album as a purchase but to flap our gums about it until we annoy our friends into looking it up. All Phoenix will need is that friend to press play on an Itunes or Amazon song sample. Once it starts our job is done.
Stream and purchase Phoenix on her bandcamp page
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