David Stephenson – David Stephenson – Album Review
If you’ve been following along at the pages lately, you’ve probably spotted the name David Stephenson not all that long ago when we reviewed his album I Become Disaster…and if you’ve done your due diligence, you’ve also had a listen by now either at his sites or in recent tunes we’ve played on the SBS Podcast. I busted out a theory on the last episode that gave an explanation of what I think has got him back so soon…the possibility that many of these songs coexisted at the same time, but also suggesting that Stephenson had the foresight to know which of his new creations belonged to which project. It’s a possibility that’s correct…it really is just an unconfirmed theory at this point, but I think you’ll be able to hear what made these two recent albums of David’s exist as the separate entities they are; both I Become Disaster and his new self-titled record have completely different approaches, ideas & styles.
And as IF I needed some other reason to believe that David Stephenson is one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the privilege to talk to other than the short conversations we’ve had in the background online – according to his social media, he’s also dedicating this album to his mom! I’m telling ya this sincerely – David Stephenson will OUT-NICE you in every way possible; he’s a genuine soul and a true gentleman.
Now then…time to tear him apart limb-from-friendly-limb!
Don’t get me wrong, being a nice guy won’t earn you a free-pass with me…but it certainly is nice to have context to go along with what we listen to. I’m not even remotely kidding (though I wish I was) when I tell you that about a good 60-65% of what comes a music-reviewer’s way are links only…MAYBE the album art is included if you’re lucky – and it consistently shocks me that people wouldn’t take the five seconds it would take to leave a more lasting impression. The best way I can put it is that it doesn’t take much effort on part of the artist, band or management to add a bit of personality or dialogue into the mix – and the results can make a lifetime of difference; essentially, I’ve got a jukebox’s worth of music coming at me each and every day, but I’ll REMEMBER David Stephenson – will I remember YOU?
To his credit…I won’t just remember him because of his charming personality – the dude writes a solid, creative & expressive tune. There are artists you can listen to that write and perform a great song…but there are also other like David that can do these things while adding in the magic of the moment; you can tell that endless inspiration is fueling the music and songs are being written, played and recorded at a rate like never before. Regardless of how/why he’s separated the songs between the latest two albums he’s put out – the simple fact is that the guy is clearly experiencing that next-level in his own creativity…and the result of that is a whole bunch of songs! I Become Disaster was no joke in its length either – both records have fifteen songs on them; David’s most major decisions probably surrounded whether or not he wanted to put out THREE albums instead of just a mere two – nice problem to have!
The new David Stephenson album allows him to explore different dimensions of his imagination and sound than we experienced on the more rock-influenced music from I Become Disaster. It also allows him to incorporate so of his history from along his music-career; a little peek into his page at Soundcloud confirms the suspicion I had about these songs coexisting at the same time as many on I Become Disaster…many of the songs on the new album actually pre-dated both records official releases. From the production on his new album, sounds like everything’s been evened-out in the mix to fit together strongly here, all spiffed-up & shiny & new; the songs themselves roam over a vast terrain of ideas, styles and sincere melodies that have just enough of a hint of rock to let you know it’s still David. On a mix of time, atmospheres & imagination like this, you’re bound to have your favorites and other tracks that don’t measure up quite as much to what your own personal taste might demand, but the passion is clearly there in the music. David executes at a high-level of professionalism and again, writes a damn fine tune; that’s what these songs & multi-faceted albums & back-to-back releases highlight more than anything else about him…his versatility as an artist and his courage to pursue every idea he’s got with just as much passion & heart as the tune before.
Take the beautiful way that the album opens with “Tape Loop Memories” – David’s written a real songwriter’s tune…those that appreciate the descriptive storylines in a Reed or Dylan song would dig on this song for sure. You add in David’s penchant for melody and you’ve got a sound that’s arguably more accessible overall; I think he even gets close to R.E.M. territory on the way he approaches the chorus of “Tape Loop Memories” and the addition of the keyboard-flute sounds accenting the melody is another signature part that Stipe & his crew added into many a tune as well. It’s a really well-crafted tune, David sings it with the right energy in both its most gentle & boldest moments…a strong opening for an acoustically-based tune that has a gripping narrative that keeps us hanging on to every word.
…okay…the shift into “Binge Buy Love” is one of the spots on the record that might feel a bit jagged in transitioning from the seriousness in the sound of “Tape Loop Memories” into this second cut. What makes me smile is the fact that David can truly be a musical-madman at times…his level of commitment to a song never wavers and I completely admire that. As far as “Binge Buy Love” goes in terms of the writing…this one is a TOUGH one for me; he’s working with the melody from the nursery rhyme “Hush Little Baby” on this song and…and…well…that’s a tough thing to get behind for me personally. He’s also working somewhat in the lyrical-framework of what could feel like gimmickry or even an ad for Amazon Prime…so…there’s that…but I think what again saves this is the way that David approaches his performance…that’s what makes this end up becoming catchy & listenable. It might be a ‘guilty pleasure’ kind of tune for many out there…but I just don’t think you can fault this guy when it comes to execution. The mix is amazing, the background elements are just as key to the success of this song as anything we hear in the foreground, the backing vocals completely brought a smile to my face every time as well…so even if you do try to resist it, I think ultimately the fun takes hold of us here. Still an adjustment in sound that might take some getting used to from the first to second song, but once you get into it, you’ll be glad to be there. “Binge Buy Love” has an exceptional sound in its chorus – I think he nailed that and he’s got completely rad guitar tones in the solo towards the end of the song…it’s that nursery-rhyme aspect that makes you want to resist it…but then like, think of the way that a band like Cake approached tunes like “I Will Survive” or even “Mahna Mahna” and you’ll get an idea of the lighthearted way that Stephenson has written & performed “Binge Buy Love.”
David walks a fine, fine-line on the melody in “Blood On Your Hands” as he wanders in & out of the sound, style & approach taken by The Band on “The Weight” – there are times where you feel like you could slide the words from one right into the other…and that might be that point where an influence makes itself almost too-present within a song. At the end of the day, they ARE different songs…but I can’t imagine anyone hearing “Blood On Your Hands” and not immediately thinking about taking the load off of Fanny and putting it onto themselves, know what I mean? And all that being said, because of the natural rhythm and melody that comes along with a sound like “Blood On Your Hands” has, it becomes extremely inviting and warm…comforting to listen to, which makes for an interesting listen to in contrast with the song’s imagery set in war. This song has that Vietnam-era folk-rock sound and Stephenson pulls the entire style off to complete perfection; great vocals, great guitars and great bass. It’s similar to The Band’s style & sound for certain…but still enough Stephenson for this to be his own and it’s a really solid tune in the early stages of his self-titled record.
I thought about playing “The Electronic Woodpecker” on the SBS Podcast as one of the selections from Stephenson’s music that I was playing back-to-back on the show the other day. The only thing that ended up stopping me was that I felt like it was more of an anomaly on the record…it’s the most firmly rooted in its electro rhythm & groove and goes against the grain of much of what he’s put onto this album as far as similar songs go…it’s short, but also one of the most unique on the record. And…AND…it’s completely awesome to listen to – I’d honestly recommend that David checks out doing a few more of these, because this is a seriously rad electro-jam he’s got going on here. The fourth song on the record with yet another different approach…you can tell that this compilation gathering of his past & present show how diverse his ideas have been and will likely always be. “The Electronic Woodpecker” is a great moment of pure electronic FUN – he’s got just the right amount of everything here on the album’s shortest track.
“Nothing Never Changes” has a great mix…love how this track has a certain ambience in the sound that makes this all sound like a real moment in time. Sounds like we’ve got harmonica, guitar, whistling and tapping on the ol’ acoustic guitar-body to create the beat…it all has a real intimate & isolated feeling to it…like a moment that David’s created just for you personally. On this cut, with the exception of David’s naturally lower-tones in the vocals, the writing here reminds me a lot of the free-spirited & easygoing melodies that you can find on Josh Rouse’s Subitulo album. David shifts his energy so well when it comes to finding a match to whichever atmosphere he’s working with…he almost takes the energy right out of this one and just lets the words drip slowly out of his mouth…and it’s exactly what the song needed from the vocals to match the surrounding sounds. “Nothing Never Changes” leading into “Amber” made for a great set of tracks occurring back-to-back on David Stephenson; the latter tune heading further into a R.E.M. like style in the mix of melancholy & sweetness in the melody and approach. “Amber” has beautifully intentioned words and expressive, colorful delivery from David’s vocals matching their ambitious sentiment. It also highlights his ability to combine a variety of instruments backing-up the main guitar rhythms and how he can always seem to find the right way to complement the song’s main melody. Great parts on the harmonica…if that’s a real one, he’s got real technique; if it’s a sound from the keyboards, no complaints…it’s great to listen to and sounds real.
Much like I felt about “Binge Buy Love” – I wanted to resist “Back That Booty Up” at first…could I really get behind a song called “Back That Booty Up?” I asked myself. As it turns out…the answer is a more than enthusiastic YES…this track reminded me of Morphine! Not the drug, the band…think of like…maybe a more lighthearted version of a song like “Buena” and you’ll get an idea. “Back That Booty Up” has only the lyrics that are in the title itself…and MAN does David take these vocals for a rhythmic ride! Complete with a seriously rad & funky mix of music in the atmosphere and simulated back-up noises from like, a commercial vehicle of some kind…”Back That Booty Up” is pretty much built on hooks that stem for an artist fully immersed in the moment and making the most out of a great idea. David bucks tradition here on this tune by keeping the lyricism simple…he keeps the song stunning by incorporating a highly innovative and inspired performance on the mic that sounds fantastic to listen to.
Returning to a softer-side of his music on “Mermaid Melody” and working with a clever vocal flow that includes a brilliant layering of sound between the lead & backing parts and a gentle acoustic sound…almost sounds like ukulele on this one in its tone. The way that the background slowly creeps in more and more is absolutely gorgeous, warm and glowing with additional beauty. Similar to like, the sparsest moments of the music from the Beta Band with all their imagination and creativity intact – “Mermaid Melody” has a smooth combination of drifting & dreamy feelings that float you along on a cushion of pillowy sound. Hypnotic in its repeating melody and intoxicatingly-cool layers of vocals – I thought everything about this idea was pure genius, unique and entirely well-executed by David.
“George Jones” was an interesting tune in how it blends tribute & history together into a tale of the famous American songwriter. As it began, I felt like it was going to stick a little bit too close to the country-side of music for me with its back & forth plodding bass-lines…but then David adds an entirely different dimension to the sound with the way he approaches the mix & sound on his vocals, giving the song an added layer of interesting texture that keeps us listening to the story being sung. I always like a track that gets me looking things up on the internet or has me pondering about something related to what I’m hearing…I’m thinking about the impact that George Jones must have had on Stephenson for him to write an entire song about him…you gotta admire that kind of impact and ultimately the respect one would have to have for George to create it. Overall, David manages to keep this one on the rails just enough for me personally…it’s probably the closest to a tune that I might have cut from the record, but I have a feeling that the relationship between himself, George Jones & the music they both make not only makes this track interesting to listen to, but probably important for David to have included on this album. Between “George Jones” and the ultra-sleepy “Buck And The Vixen” however…Stephenson dials back the energy severely on his new record…and on an album of fifteen tunes, that’s always a risk. If there’s anywhere that I’d suggest to David to look to improve, it’s not in the music itself but in the layout & flow of the albums he’s putting out there…and potentially also being a bit more brutal when it comes to leaving out a few more songs in order to keep that energy flowing. Nothing wrong with a slow-jam…certainly nothing wrong with the sound of “Buck And The Vixen” either; you just never want to lose the listening audience. Even with the quality-level in the writing being of a consistently high-caliber, it can still happen to the best of the artists & bands out there…that mid-album lull. “Buck And The Vixen” almost sounds like a variation of “Home On The Range” at times as well…so you can get the idea of that laidback energy applied in the music & performance. That being said – the guitar solo on “Buck And The Vixen” is one of my favorites…as usual, whether the style or sound is one you identify with or connect to or don’t – David’s always got something redeeming coming just around the corner.
But it really isn’t until the cover of The Hollies song “Carrie Anne” that we really hear the music snap back to life and bring that energy back to the record. I will fully admit…when I first heard “Carrie Anne” from David’s perspective, I thought the dude had full-on lost his mind…I dare say I even questioned for a moment whether or not it ‘worked’ like…at ALL. And then that indescribable thing happened. That part of music where acceptance creeps in…where you tune-in to an artist’s style, ideas, sounds or method. I’ve heard countless albums by bands & artists in the mainstream I absolutely love only to hear them follow it up with an album that, when listening to it for the first several times, doesn’t work for me. Then over time…over repeat listens, and certainly in the case of bands that are worth the time – RESEARCH into what the songs are all about & how they came to be…all of these things can add up to a completely newfound love of what’s happening in the music you’re choosing to listen to. “Carrie Anne” was completely like that for me…I thought David was nuts…then I thought he was genius; he gives SO MUCH to this cover tune that how can you not love it? That’s as committed as you can ever ask a performer to be…he undoubtedly gives a madness & feeling of reckless abandon in the free-wheeling spirit of “Carrie Anne” – I became seriously hooked on this song over time and have now sought it out on the regular throughout this entire month. How’s THAT for a turnaround? That’s why it’s important to listen…and repeatedly listen…and give time in between listens…to gain perspective, to feel that moment you love come back around like an old friend you can’t wait to see. Musical taste is no different than actual taste buds…even things you might not think you like can one day soon become things you love and can’t live without.
Just so happened that one of my favorite tunes on this album also happened to be one of the oldest from what I can see has been posted throughout David’s page at Soundcloud – “Hyperbolic Machinations” is five years old already! Do you realize what this means? This means that for some unknown reason, I’ve spent five years way too long without knowing this song was out there to enjoy! I played this tune on the most recent episode of the SBS Podcast…because this is a track that seriously holds up. Not only does it hold up five years after it was written – it’s gonna hold up long, long after that. I think David has really written a timeless melody here on “Hyperbolic Machinations” and puts in an incredible performance. To be truthful, there are even a few ticks in the music that I’m not quite 100% on – but those few overlapping tones aren’t nearly enough to stop me from listening to one of the most brilliant ideas you’ll find in David’s catalog. The atmosphere in this track is seriously incredible…I get such an uplifting vibe from the music he’s made here and the amazing way he executes this melody. Laden with vivid imagery in the lyrics, he also brings back the themes of war in amongst self-reflection, creating another insightful storyline that demands listening to his every word. Absolutely love this tune and sincerely think it’s one of the best ideas he’s gotten into the studio…real magic in this melody and a captivating hypnotic & hazy vibe that locks you right into this moment in time.
Canadian-based band Tea Party used to toss in the raddest instrumentals into their albums…songs like “The Badger” and “Winter Solstice” were among some of my absolute favorites from that band, but they occurred at random and weren’t what you’d expect from a band that had such powerful vocals. David pulls that same move off here spectacularly with “Whiskeytown Rag” – it’s a short & sweet instrumental acoustic guitar jam that completely hits the mark. I think the opening of this tune is particularly brilliant and potentially points to how the song itself was recorded; it might not exactly been David’s first run through – but more than likely that he’s playing this from beginning to end in one go. When you factor that in…you gotta give this man credit. Not only is the song completely awesome, bright & sunny to listen to – but the intricate nature of the playing and pace of the song is complex & would have been very tough to pull off. But this is what makes that difference when it comes to getting it RIGHT. Maybe it took him one take, maybe it took him all damn week…doesn’t matter HOW LONG it took because LISTEN to the golden way that it all came out! Without a single word, “Whiskeytown Rag” creates its own place on the album handily with a charming performance from David on this instrumental and real heart in its melody.
Stephenson almost heads into a Mike Doughty-esque style of an idea on “I Lost My Girl To A Drum Machine” – which brings up the playful edge in his idea & sound as the new album heads towards its ending. First of all…it’s natural; men are almost completely useless as a part of the human species and drum machines are made so well these days…I would hope that David isn’t beating himself up too much about this tragic event. I dig what he’s doin’ acoustically here…I like the rhythm in the music a lot here; it’s a quirky little ditty but has a widespread appeal and easygoing tone to its mood. Not entirely sold on the lyrics in the main hook…BUT…I understand why he went that direction in this song and they do fit in with the rest of what he’s singing about. When he starts introducing the instruments both in sound AND by name in the song, that was right where he completely sold me…that was a purely fun idea and a perfect tune to have incorporated it into. As smart as it is funny, as catchy as it is poignant – it’s a clever, lighthearted switch before the final push to the end of David Stephenson with “The Helical Flow.”
I’ve pointed out the many differences between David’s latest two records – but where things become similar are right at the end, right when it’s most important. This guy knows how to finish a record on the strongest of notes – I think “The Helical Flow” was without a doubt one of the best songs on the new album and a real dose of atmosphere, execution and style that really hit the mark. Almost like a Bowie tune at times…David is floating away straight into orbit on “The Helical Flow” and keeping that melody in-check as we all slowly drift away with him. Whatever he’s got supplying the low-end of this cut sounds absolutely incredible…could be like…really, really low tones from a cello perhaps. Maybe an Oboe…is that what an Oboe sounds like? I can’t remember…but whatever that is…it’s amazing. You add in the stunning keyboard sounds and his immaculate ability to layer-in different elements all threaded through each other and you’ve got one seriously glorious ending to an album that leaves you with that resounding impact that makes you want to repeat the experience all over again. It’s been a journey of through sound to get here throughout this entire record…and this final track offers up a world of sound on its own…another huge highlight on the self-titled album but also another stellar achievement in his songwriting, performance and execution. Definitely the strongest of notes to have gone out on…the kind of song that can shape the opinion of an entire album when it comes at the end of a record like “The Helical Flow” does…and as a result, you’ll exit the world of David Stephenson enthusiastically ready & willing to return.
Find out more about David Stephenson at his official page at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DavidStephensonMusic/