Crystal Bowersox and her superb band recorded her new album Alive live in a studio with a small audience, so the sound is crisp and clear but the vibe is alive. Most written or co-written by Bowersox, the songs cover a modest variety of stylistic ground, with solid if not spectacular songwriting – blues and soul, folk-pop (“StayCation”), folk-Americana (“Marlboro Man,” “Arlene”) – but her gutsy-velvety vocals and smooth melodicism tie it all together. There’s a little Ruthie Foster, a little Alison Krauss, a little Joan Osborne – and of course Janis Joplin in the final and inevitable “Me and Bobby McGee” (titled here as just “Bobby McGee”), in which Bowersox pulls off the neat trick of doing Joplin’s version without slavishly copying.
However, there’s more country and folk-pop here, and more slow tempos, than the first two tracks might lead you to expect. “The Ride” is a rock-soul-blues concoction, “Sunshine Brighter” a retro-’70s confection laced with harmonica and organ. But beginning with “StayCation,” which combines a sunny, dancing hook with quotes from Bob Marley and Steve Miller, the sound grows less bluesy, settling, with “Broken Wing,” into a string of Americana ballads.
The sad simplicity of “Let Me Walk Away,” the best of the ballads, sounds like John Prine-style country-folk. I’m reminded, conceptually anyway, of Bonnie Raitt’s hit cover of Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” But by the time Track 11, “Dead Weight,” arrives, I’ve grown a little tired of the dominance of mid-to-slow-tempos. The arrangements do build excitement into each song – “Dead Weight” in fact swells into a pounding 6/8 “Ball and Chain” storm – but not always enough. And I find myself wishing she’d cut loose vocally more, as she does in the thrilling penultimate track “Until Then.”
Alive is a happy listen as a whole, and it sounds like it comes from the heart – and the (collective) brain of a band whose members know how to listen to one another as well as their front woman. Unlike many of her fellow American Idol alums, Bowersox goes her own way. “You were no mistake, you were meant to be,” she sings in the catchy “No Mistake” – “I was wide awake when love delivered you to me.” Wide awake for sure, she’s a real artist, not a commercial construct, TV pedigree or no. She even wrote a song, “Arlene,” for an American Idol tour bus driver she got to know. What could be more real than that? Since then, it’s been out here in the real world where you’ll find her, singing real songs for real people with a real voice – live and alive.
Romantic, icy-hot, theatrical, Emily West‘s new EP Symphonies sees the eclectic singer and songwriter gliding into the cool-pop terrain Sia has made her own of late. (In fact, West made a splash performing Sia’s megahit “Chandelier” on America’s Got Talent a few years ago.) Echoes of Alison Moyet and even Bjork are detectable too in this rarity, a set of pop music with an adult sensibility.
On these six songs, written by West with producer Daniel Tashian and other collaborators, West’s shiny-bronze voice washes waves of sadness and longing over straightforward lyrics. Tashian’s production evokes the best of cosmopolitan Europop, with plenty of synthesizer. Reggae-style bass pounces through “Heaven and Back,” and the title track is a 1960s-style ballad.
Modern influences aside, West retains a powerful affinity for the sounds and sophisticated song stylings of the past. Her voice has too much old-soul gravitas to simulate a 21st-century pop star. Rather than following a trend, she refashions it in her own striking image.