David Stephenson – Grace (The Quarantine Sessions) – Album Review
…David Stephenson…David Stephenson…
…I’m just trying to place the name here…sounds familiar…
Right! It could be from the several times I’ve reviewed his music here in the past over the years and the multiple times I’ve played his tunes on the SBS Podcast – it’s THAT David Stephenson!
Obviously I’m kidding around…this is a name that’s practically stapled to my brain and a constant inspiration that exists out there in the music-scene today. He’s a little crazy, a little wild, a lot funny, and a lot talented…and every time David pops into my world, he’s got something new for my ears. Dude’s also pretty damn relentless when it comes to making music too…this will actually be 4/4 for me personally – I’ve reviewed the last four records he’s made including this one, year after year as they’ve been released and been a fan of the freedom & creative courage this artist has from the moment we first connected way-back-when in 2017 when I checked out his album I Become Disaster. Ever since then, I’ve seen the commitment, I’ve seen the dedication, I’ve heard the music continue to flow constantly…he’s a man of music through & through, and this list of attributes is but a few of the many reasons to love him.
And it’s in saying all that gushy good stuff that, I’m here to announce what’s probably the most obvious conclusion you’ve probably already drawn to…which is that, yep, David’s been plenty busy during his time in isolation. Surprised? I didn’t think so. I know I wasn’t. I was by the music itself, don’t get me wrong…but not by the making OF it…I would have bet the farm on Stephenson making a record right now. He’s never been one to sit still to begin with…and now with all this extra time we’ve all got on our hands as we wait out this pandemic as best we can? Please. It’s a no-brainer that he’d release a record.
He’s made a perfect choice with the title-track to bring you into this album, and it makes a statement right off the bat. “Grace” reveals a playful bounce, a wonderfully sincere sound, and ultimately, themes that both apply directly to what we’re feeling collectively right now amidst the pandemic, in addition to providing some words at the end we could all stand to live by, where he sings “treat a stranger as your friend.” While the entirety of Grace (The Quarantine Sessions) isn’t 100% dedicated to the actual nitty gritty details of the Covid-19 era we’re in, you will certainly notice it when the subject does pop up in the lyricism along the way. Beyond that, it’s safe to assume that the rest of the songs you’ll find at least contain that cohesive thread of being created during these crazy days of isolation. I think he’s played this the right way…commendably so in fact…I can’t imagine how dreary a full-on pandemic-inspired record COULD be if an artist were to dwell on the dark-side of it all. David’s approached Grace with an entire range & array of emotions, sound, and themes that are true to his own personal style, but also reflect how scattered all of our thoughts & feelings are right now as well. And somehow he’s managed to house all of this within the confines of this new record of his. I really felt like “Grace” had a sparkling vibe that was the right way to open-up this whole experience…you can feel the energy, you can relate to the lyrics, you can dig the melody…all of this is great, but perhaps nothing shines brighter than the fact that, somehow…some way…Stephenson has managed to capture the spirit & essence of the very definition of “Grace” right there in its audible form and put it out there for all of us to hear. Beautiful sentiment, solid tune…I think his title-track was absolutely the right call to get this album on its way.
I am NOT gonna pretend to know what the heck inspires this guy or what he’s singing about all the time, because that’s straight-up unknowable. I’m not even sure that DAVID knows, you feel me? So as to what on earth he’s on about with the words of “Parkway Flower,” I couldn’t venture a guess really…but…will…you…LISTEN…to…just…how…DIFFERENT…this likely is to say, just about everything you’re probably listening to these days! There is inherent value in going your own way – and Stephenson is no stranger to doing that when it comes to his music; it’s damn near inarguable when it comes to the amount of impact “Parkway Flower” will have on people listening. Whether or not it’s their favorite song on the record aside – it’s all about the production, performance, and ideas here – THAT is what makes it stand out…or rather, leap right out of your speakers from the lefts to the rights. David’s working on the inside of a Folk/Pop sound overall on “Parkway Flower,” but he’s given this song several twists that give it like, an old-western like vibe, or even Gospel-esque tinge to it. The MAIN hook of “Parkway Flower” in my opinion, is the very first thing you’ll hear…and every single subsequent time you’ll hear Stephenson “woo-hooing” like he’s on the top of a mountain bellowing down for us all to hear him clearly…let’s just say it was like notching another complete victory every time it happened.
I love that you can always hear such a range of influences in Stephenson’s music that proves to your ears he’s well-versed in what’s out there from the past to the present. “Campfire Girl” is a great cut…I’d say it might even have the edge overall when it comes to the first three tracks on this album – and quite likely, the most common comparison he’ll get on this song by people paying attention will be Roy Orbison. You could look to more subtle sounds of the modern era like maybe The Killers, The LA’s or Butch Walker as more contemporary comparisons as well, but you’d be looking at artists/bands that would equally pay homage to Orbison as the roots of a lot of their own songs too. Sure Buddy was doing a lot of this too but that’s another story…you’ll hear the signature Orbison sound come to life as David pivots between the verse & chorus and shifts into the main hooks, both in the way he sings it, and specifically by the way he plays the finale of “Campfire Girl.” To me, if you can’t hear that comparison, you need to go back and give Roy’s catalog the serious attention it deserves. Stephenson’s borrowing a bit here for sure, but paying homage at the same time…he’s flashing similar moves, but owning them with confidence and making this moment his own. I think a lot of people out there will love this song.
It’s funny how you develop these like…ugh…I don’t even know how to explain this…but as a reviewer you become familiar with certain things. I’ll just give you the example of what I mean as best I can. When I realized I was about to hit track four on Stephenson’s new album, I felt a tingle run down the ol’ spine…like I recalled a memory from the past that told me, ‘isn’t it always right about track four that David seems to throw something absolutely spectacular in the mix that seems to change everything?’ And sure enough, the magic of the melody I love in this guy’s music came pouring out of “Buzz On The Eiffel Tower” – this is signature David Stephenson right here is what this is, and a magnificent song. Incidentally, I did end up going back through the past records to see if that initial feeling was justified, even before having heard this new track-four on Grace…and it turns out, it’s pretty reliably accurate; right around here is the point where you’ll find Stephenson usually turns a good time into a great one when he makes an album. I think the rule definitely seems to apply here once again – the main hooks of “Buzz On The Eiffel Tower” are absolutely STUNNING. Moments like around the 2:30 mark where he’ll exit the chorus and light up the vibes with quaint, delicate, and straight-up gorgeous instrumentation are audible perfection. The balance here is bang-on…the verses are entertaining and versatile, drawing out the personality in the music and the vocals at the same time – and then when it comes to the main hooks of the chorus on this cut, I can’t imagine them not connecting to every single set of ears listening.
I think in general, as life permeates art & music so much as it does, that we’ll be in-store for a lot of quarantine-inspired albums over the future to come…I think that’s only natural. That being said, I think there will be a ton of proof also that, while some out there used their time to make more songs that are simply another extension of their catalog, others like David will be recognized for more accurately documenting the actual reality of what we’re experiencing. As in, we’re not just writing a whole bunch more love songs on Grace – David’s singing about “drinking some bleach” at the very beginning of “Twist” and created a seriously fun gem that celebrates the true madness & insanity we’re experiencing right now, collectively, all as one, across the globe. You might call it ironic, satiric, or REAL AF depending on your viewpoint of what life has been like during the Covid-19 era…you might even feel that “Twist” is ALL of these things and more, and that would be 100% justifiable – this is a master-class in songwriting. I’m not even arguing that it’s the BEST song on the record…I think it’s a fantastic cut and it’d certainly be right up there with my own personal favorites I’m sure, but what I’m really recognizing here is just how much focus has been put into…umm…into…uhhh…like…everything? What’s not to love about this song? Suggesting that we “twist the Covid away,” and setting that idea inside a beautifully sweet & delicate melody that, were you to be twisting it’d be mighty slowly…I mean, absolutely everything stacks up so brilliantly in how he uses exceptional contrast in his attitude, writing, music, and tone of voice to make an idea like this come to life in the exact way it should. Even right down to his word selection – he’s given “Twist” his full focus as a songwriter and I think just about anyone that’s ever written or tried to write a song themselves would certainly appreciate just how incredible this subtle charmer really is. I don’t wanna be the doomsday prepper here…all I’m saying is that if this ship we call Earth is gonna go down like the Titanic, I want “Twist” to be the song I’m hearing the band play before it’s all said & done.
C’mon now…you tryin’ to tell me somehow that you didn’t fall in love with “I Can’t Feel Anything” right away? Straight-up, this is one of the best uses of a minute & fifty-five seconds of your life as you could hope to spend your time on…and it’s a freakin’ fantastic representation of the guy behind the mic & the music that we all love. One of the most tongue-in-cheek cuts you’ll hear this year – you’ll even hear David declare “solo” when it’s time for those guitars to come alive – and in one of the best endings to a song you’ll literally ever hear, he chops this one finitely at the end of a clever lyrical twist to this story. And when you think about how “I Can’t Feel Anything” started out…you’ll likely come to the same conclusion I did…which is that this song/story almost couldn’t have ended any other way – but what makes it remarkable is that David has the artistic courage to follow through on the craziest of ideas. Honestly, I think there is like, .01% of the artists/bands out there that would stick a landing to an idea like this as hard as David did…this was the ending the song really called for, and he followed it there, without question, without considering whether or not it was ‘normal’ or ‘playing by the rules.’ I highly suspect David doesn’t DO rules at all…there’s no limitations on his style or sound and that’s consistently reflected throughout the course of his rapidly expanding catalog. In an instance like “I Can’t Feel Anything” – you gotta give the man even MORE credit for the fact that, he can make you chuckle, he can even make you laugh out loud sometimes – but at the heart of any joke he might make, still exists a melody & song you can truly appreciate. He never takes his eyes/ears off of the ultimate prize, which is to make music we can all feel in some way…and I think that’s a huge accomplishment to be able to make songs that still make an impact on the heart & soul while generating comedy & laughs at the same time. All that aside, the instrumentation is RADIANT on this cut…”I Can’t Feel Anything” is an absolutely killer blend of psych-vibes, vividly-colorful sound, and tones with the texture it takes to reach out & touch ya.
“Forever Away” is an interesting tune. It’s the kind of song that tells you immediately it’s not the single, but ready to present a meaty idea that your ears & brain can dig right into, with a quaint but majestic melody leading the way into a highly adventurous journey in sound. Coming directly after the grins induced by “I Can’t Feel Anything,” David takes a turn into the serious here with a more emotionally-based cut in “Forever Away” and the themes of the push/pull of love right there on the surface for all to hear. And trust me…if you’ve ever reached that point of “should I stay or should I go now” yourself in a relationship, chances are you’ll know exactly what Stephenson is singing about on “Forever Away.” I’ll say this…I think “Forever Away” is the kind of cut that’ll be appreciated perhaps more than listened to or sought out immediately…but it’s the kind of song that really adds strength to the lineup overall and offers a whole different dimension of sound than any other tune. Personally, it was the way the melody started to soar in moments like around the 1:30 mark that felt like they got to the heart of this song, which might be why David chose to include the instrumental version of this cut at the end of the record to make sure you get every opportunity to appreciate all that’s gone into the music of this tune as well. I like the Eastern-tinge to the atmosphere & sound, and I actually really like the vocal melodies that David has put into this song as well…he’s found a genuinely impressive fit into a rhythm that wouldn’t have been the easiest task for any singer out there and put in an engaging & compelling performance. Not every song needs to be filled with the bombastically bright Pop-hooks to pull people in to listen – some tunes are designed to take you on a different kind of journey altogether – “Forever Away” incorporates a wide array of sounds that remain as equally interesting to hear as a great story unfolding.
Look…I’ve been a fan from the moment I had a chance to jump on David’s bandwagon, which was already mid-point in his catalog of records that have come out by the time I got there…but I also think it’s truly undeniable that this artist has been getting better & better with each album he’s put out. Whether or not he’s a better musician or songwriter NOW…honestly I don’t know…he’s always been solid in that respect…something tells me he just believes in himself & what he can do more these days, and allowing himself the freedom to explore every idea that pops into his head. It’s in allowing yourself the opportunity as an artist to let the music lead you to all kinds of new experiences that songs like “Voices” come out…this is another golden gem. He’s done an exceptional job of designing music that really interacts perfectly with the vocals, where each layer complements the other, and furthers the quality of the entire experience in listening. I love the organ layer in the atmosphere of this song and the warmth it provides in the glow overall…and I think David’s done another noteworthy job with his vocals in how he sings the main hooks of “Voices.” Dude’s nearly gettin’ his Chris Martin on when it comes to the falsetto moments of “Voices” – I’m just saying if he croons this one out live somewhere, that’s bound to be the point in the concert you start to see the underwear flyin’ towards the stage is all.
I know just enough about the tendencies of David Stephenson to know that seeing a title like “Lawn Chives” certainly suggests we’re gonna be in for something from the weirder-side of the man’s persona. I’m all about it! Always have been. Some of his biggest oddities from the past records he’s made are the songs that still stick with me the most to this very day. So bring it on David, let’s sing about “Lawn Chives,” I’m right there in the front row brother-man, ready to hear it, ready to get weird with ya. How many times have I said here that, we’ve all gotta write about SOMETHING – so why NOT “Lawn Chives” I say!?! There’s actually quite a bit of like, 70’s style psych-vibes that come jumping through the speakers at ya on this tune…love the tone of the guitar in this cut – and you can definitely tell that David did too. Listen to the man light this mother UP as he passes the two-minute mark…the way he’s used distortion, texture, tone, and melody is freakin’ wicked to listen to, and when you combine that with the steady & secure bass-rhythms & wild drums poundin’ away…I’m tellin’ ya folks, it’s weird without question, but there’s a ton here to love. No question that’s it’s just about the most different cut you’ll hear in the entire lineup, but the appeal of that alone has its own allure as well – and when you factor in just how vivid, vibrant, and lively this whole track becomes…I mean, you gotta dig it. There’s more personality on “Lawn Chives” in the music, vocals, and ideas, than most bands/artists manage to fit on an entire album. Some of my favorite guitar from David and his entire catalog are housed right here in this very song.
“Brown Liquor” is a testament to just how much fun this dude likes to have playing & making music – and you better believe the enthusiasm transmits straight to us when we’re listening. I ain’t gonna lie to ya of course, “Brown Liquor” is borrowing a ton from the Blues/Rock sound you already know & love – any set of ears out there that have listened to a decent amount of music in their lifetime could tell ya that – but it’s the METHODS of this dude’s madness that make it all become so much more to experience. Bringin’ out the HARP and takin’ it for a serious romp – and by harp I’m talkin’ harmonica folks – “Brown Liquor” immediately employs its audible strategy for unapologetic energetic F-U-N, and definitely hits the mark in terms of creating a cut that has a classic & familiar vibe we can all dig on. I’ll say this much, if David wants to keep on harpin’ at us, I’d be the first in line to not complain – the man can light up a harmonica and “Brown Liquor” definitely proves it. After all I’ve heard from this guy over time, one of his best attributes has been his drive and passion for always reaching for new ideas, new sounds, new challenges as an artist. Obviously a lot of the core of “Brown Liquor” has that standard Blues/Rock vibe we all know & love – but the amount of innovation surrounding that deserves recognition. Plus you get a solidly loose & lively performance from Stephenson on the mic that’s right on the money; “Brown Liquor” is a short cut at just over two-minutes, but bound to be a crowd pleaser.
You could even argue that “Don The Revelator” takes you on a trip even further back in time, hitting more of a detectable 60’s/70’s approach to the level of cool you’ll find in this song. Smartly using his vocals like an instrument essential to the core of the melody, rhythm, and groove you’ll find – “Don The Revelator” weighs-in at just ninety-seconds in length, but no matter how short of a song you’ll experience on Grace (The Quarantine Sessions), everything you’ll hear makes an impact in some way, shape, or form. My question this time around would probably be, how in the heck did this song come out so short? Would I have been tempted to stay locked into this wildly subtle & badass groove for about an hour had I created it myself? You bet your ass I would…I don’t think I could reign myself in like David has here, so credit to the man for that too. “Don The Revelator” is essentially one massive hook in action from the time it begins, to the time it ends only eighty-nine seconds later; and it’s hella effective. Honestly, I can’t decide between whether or not I love the main rhythm on the surface & vocals more, or the absolutely incredible stuff he’s got goin’ on in the background of “Don The Revelator” – take a real close listen and you’ll discover that what appears pretty chill is actually raging with frequencies and all kinds of colorful sound added in there.
Alright. Focus David, focus. You’ve had your fun over the course of these past three tunes, and it’s high-time to remind the people out there what you’re capable of on the serious side before this album is over, which he will with “Scattered.” Don’t get me wrong either, I enjoy listening to the fun, bizarre, and strange side of this man just as much as he enjoys BEING that guy I’m sure – but I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t say that it is almost always the “Scattered” moments of gripping sincerity, uniqueness, and melody he creates that hit home with me the hardest. Case in-point, the album’s final original, “Scattered” – another absolutely excellent cut from the Stephenson catalog overall, not just this record. I really dig the mix he’s put onto his vocals, I dig the chord changes, I dig the string sounds and how his vocals respond & react with the pulse of the music…”Scattered” has a frantic-but-hopeful & uplifting energy to it; David might be singing about personal chaos, but he sure sounds like he has it together here in the execution of this last cut. Sometimes you gotta tear it all down before you build it back up – and I think that’s what you’ll hear is implied through the contrast between the lyrics detailing devastation and the uplifting vibe in the aura surrounding the words. Not too far removed from something you might find in The Airborne Toxic Event or The Boxer Rebellion actually…I think he’s got a very rad cut at the end of Grace that has a ton of accessibility, raw honesty, and sincerity you can feel.
Out officially on June 4th this year, David’s got two instrumental slices for ya in the official release of his seventh record that come at the end; you’ll find the exquisite instrumentation and dreamy vibes of “Forever Away” show up once more, along with a version of “Buzz On The Eiffel Tower” without vocals to finish off Grace. No objections from me or my ears – more David Stephenson is always a good thing in my books, and I think it really gives two of the most engaging cuts on this record a second shot at getting the attention they deserve, in a whole new light to boot. It just goes to show that when you’re putting your heart & soul into everything from the music to the microphone, you can take one of those core elements away and still have it speak powerfully to us as listeners. I mean…I’m assuming it would be equally cool if we were just left with his vocals instead of the music, but he’s probably made the right choice as to go with music & without vocals this time around. When those bass-grooves of “Buzz On The Eiffel Tower” get goin’ again, with the percussion, synth strings, and blissful island-vibes start radiating from the sweetness of his guitar, you just wanna start up this whole experience all over again.
So I have been. Several times in fact.
And I’m excited for you to do the same, very soon.
Make sure to support the man at the upcoming sale to support artists/bands on the Bandcamp website on June 5th! I’ll be spinning a couple of his tracks on the next episode of the SBS Podcast to make sure you get a chance to check this out – until then, make sure to listen to the music of David Stephenson by visiting his official page at Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/artist/1QLPkYqfPauzcMQOElRT7T
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