Shannon Stephens may not be breaking any boundaries on her third album, as she enthusiastically explores the dusty tracks of American folk and country. Yet her songs and voice are strong enough to stand clear from many of the unimaginative albums these genres have accommodated over the last fifteen-odd years.
Her guitars are often plugged in, with muddied tones; the rhythms work impressively with a host of percussive companions; and the songs sound like they’ve been lived in, experienced and left to fend for themselves. The cyclical banjo and fat snares on Care for You for instance has the blues like the Be Good Tanyas going all out.
The warmer, even soulful tones, on moments like Out of Sight find new depths, as the brooding brass and electric piano lay down a sweet cruise for Stephens to deliver her gorgeous vocal upon. The Seattle artist is accompanied by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy on the piano-opening Face like Ours. It’s a ballad, but about society rather than each other, Billy entering with the line, “And we’re gonna be OK, at least we have white skin, and when you have white skin nobody can send you away.” Of course it’s always good to have a modern legend to croon alongside.
I’m not convinced that the acoustic, country-rock power-play on Buddy up to the Bully works too well, and there are a few moments that freewheel into the generic side. But the late night drive home on slow-burning closer Responsible Too Long is proof enough that Stephens is a step ahead of many in her field.