Aria Stone & Ken Stephenson – Scowling Pair

 Aria Stone & Ken Stephenson – Scowling Pair

Aria Stone & Ken Stephenson – Scowling Pair – Album Review

After the completely positive reaction I had to listening to the last time reviewing Aria Stone’s music, seeing that she has added additional talent in collaboration with Ken Stephenson brought up the expectations for what I hear even more.  I appreciated the artistic nature and musicianship in the writing of Stone’s music from the moment I heard it…she’s insightfully creative…leaves me with little doubt that she’ll find all kinds of new, inspiring ideas in music through the right collaboration.  In partnering with Stephenson, there’s a lot more added to the music and the content reaches even further into the artistic-realm with what Ken assists Aria in bringing to life on the Scowling Pair record.

Sharing the album’s credits in a nearly 50/50 split right down the middle, each of these two talents look to create a truly unique experience with the atmospheres and sounds on this new album…though whether or not that’s for better or worse will be up to your own personal taste of course.  You’ll be required to put on your thinking-cap…fire-up your artistic-acceptance and get into music that’s got a real vibrant & strong personality/charisma to it that focuses more on creativity than traditional hooks.  For those out there like myself, that’s a description that has some pull to it…but even being aware of that also leads to the expectation that art is a subjective & fickle beast; chances are, as is the case with all art, you will find some tracks on Scowling Pair that resonate with you more strongly than others and connect to you quicker.  Other songs will be debated and talked-about…regardless of a positive or negative reaction to anything you’ll hear, again chances are that you’ll feel SOMETHING.  Polarizing can often be a great thing in music and I think there are a lot of ideas worth talking about on this duo’s new record.

Musically, it starts out with a pulsing intensity and a huge, widespread atmosphere on “Lighthouse.”  Wasn’t completely sure about Aria’s lead-vocals at first with the added filter-effects…but I felt by the second verse she’d hit her stride and began to really take charge of her performance.  The backing vocals are perfection all the way through and the entire track has a real thick texture to it like the music of Kate Bush…something like “Running Up That Hill” with the enormity of the music alongside the vocals.  “Lighthouse” sets the tone immediately…you can already tell you’re in for a unique experience from the very first track…and I like that.  Loved the sound of Aria’s saxophone drifting into this tune and I really appreciated the added energy & rhythm that the vocals in the chorus of this opening track has.

“Move” comes out sounding a lot more upfront and close to you than the opening tune…loved the rumble of the bass-line/keyboards combined…and again, the backing vocals of “Move” really take a stunning turn in the spotlight, sounding incredible once more.  “Move” has a very vibrant sound to it and a completely solid groove…the music has depth and Aria’s vocals come creeping over-top eerily into this track, convincing with their haunting tone.  Great depth to the production on this cut though…really enjoyed listening to the clarity and crispness to the recording and how this track evolved throughout its length.  “Move” has a bit more accessibility than many of the songs on this record…it’d make a great choice as a single to represent this album with its huge chorus hooks easily able to pull in the people.

I was a bit tossed-up over “Not Cupid” to be truthful.  On the one-hand, Ken absolutely puts the glory right into the bass-line of this one with a simple but ultra-smooth approach to the sound driving the music of this cut…and I liked that.  I suppose it came down to the verse severely outshining the chorus of this song for me…I liked the jazzy-looseness to the verse and the free-flowing feel it has to it.  In contrast, the chorus is much more restricted and bound to its rhyme-scheme that it felt a little insincere and forced by comparison.  Always a highlight, the saxophone comes in around the three-minute mark to add in a quick solo and join into the atmosphere of the song.  I’ll say this…I can recognize hooks – and “Not Cupid” has tons of them, chorus included…it just wasn’t for me personally.  Musically I think this track grooves endlessly and I’m as susceptible to those hooks getting stuck in my head just as much as you are…and in that respect, I can’t deny that they have something here with “Not Cupid.”

I think you’ll hear from “Everybody Needs” though, that there’s an extra layer of sincerity that Aria Stone and Ken Stephenson can reach.   Exceptionally unique with a fantastic build into a chorus that packs in a ton of uplifting energy in its sound – I thought this track delivered thoroughly.  Excellent ideas, excellent pacing and excellent performances all lead to an inspired sound as the result – “Everybody Needs” really hits the emotional mark with precision.  Aria’s vocals get stronger & stronger throughout the evolution and building of sound throughout this tune and really gets creative with her delivery in ways that work here.  I’m not entirely always sure about the added layer of effects to the vocal sound she’s had on much of the record so far in comparison to the beauty in the tones of her natural voice…sometimes noticing it took me out of the moment a bit, other times it was a good twist to the overall sound.  “Everybody Needs” might have come out a bit stronger if she took it on ‘au naturale’ – but I think the idea itself is the real star of this track…the writing really speaks to us here.

“Trouble With Hubble” revisits that depth in the production that keeps the instrumentation subtle, but up-close, and the vocals set deep into the atmosphere of the music.  Experimenting with multiple layers on the vocals that have solid rhythm & flow for this groove – this track has really moves while still feeling like it’s got an extremely chill vibe to it.  Loving the rhythm section of “Trouble With Hubble” – as cool as any one element of this track might be, it’s that combination of bass & percussion that really drives the energy, mood and tone of this tune and Ken deserves some credit for making this one exceptionally entertaining.  Reliable as ever, Aria’s contributions on the saxophone completely complement the existing music and really add to the sound of “Trouble With Hubble.”

Sweetening up the record entirely through the beautiful composition of “If Love Was A Bird” – this duo takes a new direction in the sound that works wonderfully for them.  Scowling Pair soars dreamily on “If Love Was A Bird” – those keyboard parts are truly gorgeous and stunning…some of the piano-sounds are powerful enough to instantly melt the heart-strings.  Aria reaches out and challenges herself in all the right ways on this tune as well, delivering arguably her best performance of the record so far with an inspiring, confident and graceful touch that hits the mark perfectly on this warm & inviting track.  Loved the lyrics, loved the pacing, loved the performance and the entire idea – “If Love Was A Bird” is a truly beautiful moment in time.  Beautifully expressed vocals and a truly ‘free’ & blissful sound to this tune.

Oddly enough…I found the title-track “Scowling Pair” really, really worked for me.  It is NOT the type of song that normally would!  I dunno…maybe I’m selling myself a little short here…I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s a bit more theatrical in its execution than I typically listen to.  Like…you put “Scowling Pair” in a huge theatre with a bunch of background dancers and massive, over-sized drums and just WATCH/LISTEN to what happens – this would get BIG!  I enjoyed this track a lot more than I initially thought that I would…the beat is pretty infectious and the energy between these two really takes us over as listeners…you can hear that Aria and Ken are right into this one and as a result, so too, are we.

The smooth atmosphere of “Older” glides through the beginning and into the beat perfectly.  Part of me wanted Aria to come out sounding louder in that next part of the song…I found it was interesting that the volume pulls back as she’s giving it 110% on the microphone.  That’s a real take-charge sound and confident moment in the music…in my head it makes more sense to put this up above the music while it happens rather than within it.  That being said…I’m also not saying it doesn’t work for me…there IS something about the way they’ve approached this part that seems to work for me too…I’m not completely sure if turning it up would have been the better call here or not, it’s just a theory.  I like the bold confidence that the song has in the writing and the idea overall…there’s something very empowering about the inspired sound of “Older.”

Lyrically, “Liar” was not my favorite by a fairly large margin.  I don’t mind the rhythm to the words…that works well…but lyrically I felt like I expected a bit more from Aria on this one in the song’s chorus.  She’s gifted with her words in what she writes…relying on the repetitive nature of the hook in this tune didn’t work for me personally…it felt like she could have brought more to it in the writing.  Maybe just a little bit on the inside of ‘safe’ while still maintaining an artistic approach to the tone, mood & atmosphere.  Really liked the programming on the drums here…I felt like the rhythm and production of “Liar” stood out to me the most…it’s got a decisively-tribal sound to it that works well in the music and for how Aria chooses to twist and bend her words.

What a comeback right at the end of this record – “Waterfall” is freakin’ brilliant!  I would absolutely encourage these two in this particular direction.  “Waterfall” makes an excellent choice to end this record because right here at the end of the album it truly sounds like the walls have come completely down and they’ve reached the pinnacle of freedom of expression here.  The vocals of Aria are absolutely incredible & versatile here…different than we’ve experienced or heard from her on the record so far in their tone and execution – and everything sounds fresh, unique and truly inspired.  I’ve enjoyed many moments – but I honestly feel like they’ve ended this record on the biggest highlight it has to offer – and hopefully, this ends up leading them into their next project together.  The flute in this song is stunning and gorgeous…the low-end/bass is creative and mixed-in perfectly & Aria continues to soar with some of the most impressively executed ideas I’ve heard this year on the microphone to end the album with “Waterfall” – every time I got to this final song on the record I was absolutely fascinated by this duo’s creativity.  The song is as vibrant as a painting come to life…beautifully colorful, committed and entirely-realized – a stunning final moment to end the record and leave us all on an immaculate note, “Waterfall” makes you instantly want to come back for more and that’s the exact effect you want to close an album with.  This last cut makes me absolutely STOKED to hear what this collaboration could potentially create in the future and has me sincerely hoping they continue – as I said, overall I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with these two – “Waterfalls” really made my day a beautiful one and satisfied the ending of this record perfectly.  Great job!

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