What happens when you mix the vocal style of an artist like Michael McDonald with the more modern passions of musical storytellers like Andrew Ripp or Matthew Mayfield? You get a rich, audible landscape like you find with Ari Hest's new album, The Fire Plays. Piano, guitar, strings and thoughtful lyrics collide with a voice that is distinctly his.
Hest has been busy over the last decade-plus, releasing an early EP while still in college and more than a dozen others since. Now he's releasing The Fire Plays, his seventh full-length. He cites a solid body of influences such as Gordon Lightfoot and James Taylor, which reinforce that storyteller approach to songwriting and a bit more serious, introspective personality on these songs. They contain solid, folksy chord progressions and arrangements and a rough, scratchy voice. I fully expect to hear some of these songs alongside those of his idols within a few years.
My favorite of the entire album is "Set in Stone," where during the simple, well-picked guitar intro, the singer explores a crisis of conscience. "Friendships sour/Lost and hollow/I cling dear to my home/The weeds overgrow and the roof wearing thin/The shirt on my back is tearing holes through my skin/But if I try to go now I wouldn't know where to begin." How do you atone for your sins and change your ways to salvage a life worn thin? With an atmospheric electric guitar behind the pick that drives the song to a logical end, Hest ponders the costs.
Contrast that with the title track "The Fire Plays" and its warm piano melody, telling the stories of people running from their lives. That warm melody hides the morality play of the lyrics where he toys with the old phrase, "If you play with fire, you're going to get burned." Hest starts with the story of a guy fleeing the scene, somehow satisfied – "He pulled away/Into the long night/Hard to complain/He got what he came for" – as he revs his engine and leaves town. It gets darker and darker to the last verse, but I love these songs with dark tales and warm, almost friendly arrangements where you have to listen to get the message.