Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Stefanie Keys - Open Road

Stefanie Keys and her San Francisco based cohorts score again with Keys’ third consecutive barnburner of an album, Open Road. This ten song collection hits all of its marks as a convincing slab of electric guitar fueled Americana, but this isn’t merely some elaborate and talented tribute act. Keys uses these time-tested forms as a vibrant vehicle for her explorations of her own life, character studies, and ingenious re-inventions of longtime songwriting tropes and conventions. She’s ably assisted by guitarist and co-producer Dave Shul – his backing vocals, likewise, provides an excellent counterpoint to Keys’ marvelous voice. Keys has endless variety. She’s quite capable of conjuring a desperate, bluesy spirit on some songs infused, as well, with a hard-bitten rock and roll spirit. On the album’s more delicate cuts, she shows off her well honed sensitivity without ever allowing the track and its lyrics to tumble head over heels into sentimentality. 

You know that an artist is confident and on point when they are willing to open their album with the title track. “Open Road” doesn’t tread on new thematic territory for this sort of music, but Keys brings enough of her personality and personally unique imagery to bear that it draws a sharp distinction between this song and others of its ilk. Shul and her other cohorts in the band deliver restrained and eminently tasteful performances throughout all of these songs and the opener clearly announces their intentions. It isn’t easy for a top flight musician to forgo their ego. When you hear a group playing this tightly and serving the song first, it’s a sign that you, as a listener, are in exceptionally good hands. That feeling continues with the album’s second song “No Tomorrow”. Again, Keys’ songwriting doesn’t necessarily find some revelatory new ground to cover with this relatively familiar theme, but the singer and her band mates take the song on with unabashed enthusiasm that makes it an enjoyable experience.  

She hits another peak with the song “3 Hours Till Yesterday”. It’s a song with a hard push on the listener and undeniable spirit resounding from its first minute on. There’s even a lightly raucous edge that she manifests that the band plays off of in very thrilling ways. Open Road takes a sharp turn into the bluesy and soulful with the next song, “City Life”, and the spark for that is one of Keys’ most exceptional vocals to date. It has spontaneity or at least the suggestion therein, as her vocal displays tremendous emotion like she’s engaging it in live performance for the first time during recording. “Amos Cain” has plenty of corresponding antecedents in popular music, story songs about a particular character, but none are quite like this. Keys shows some genuine literary flair with this composition and the band provides her with exceptional backing. 

Open Road marks a new high water mark for Keys and her songwriting. There’s an abundance of accessible songwriting here while there’s an equal amount of material that plumbs much deeper and shows a fearlessness that defines all great songwriting. Stefanie Keys has left her mark, but she isn’t done yet. This exceptional performer and writer continues to grow and her latest effort marks the next inevitable stage in her development.  

9 out of 10 stars.

Michael Saulman

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