Helen O’Shea – Sturdy Souls

 Helen O’Shea – Sturdy Souls

Helen O’Shea – Sturdy Souls – Album Review

Alrighty…as some of you might remember from earlier this month in October, we had a peek into what singer/songwriter Helen O’Shea was up to with a couple of tracks from her album Sturdy Souls in review – and now we’re back to finish the job by checking out the rest of the lineup!  Hopefully there’s some advice somewhere in the set-list for us…not sure if it’s just me or what, but I’ve felt like I’m anything but sturdy these days.  I’d be in the shaky souls category right now at best…but that never stopped me from listening before, and it won’t now either.  Humanity in general just seems a bit fragile at the moment I think…I’ve probably just been pickin’ up the apprehensive and anxious vibes from all around the globe.

Anyhow!  Music has always been the most stable element of LIFE ITSELF as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, so I’m thankful we’ve got more tunes from O’Shea here in the mix to talk about.  A lot of what I felt about my first impressions with Helen’s music would still theoretically apply here on this record at large – it’d be rare for a lineup of songs surrounding a couple I’ve made comments on to be that much different when it comes to the rest in terms of any potential criticisms or improvements that could be made.  “With You Still,” for example…you can hear a bit of that cautious approach we were talking in the previous review, and you can hear how quickly it goes away when she’s singing with her guest-star Emily Grove, or whenever she’s a bit more confident in the main hooks of the material.  Also similarly, she’s still on-point with her tone…no issues there, and it’s always clear that Helen’s got a great voice – I simply think the more she recognizes that and believes in herself, the more she’ll get out of every moment.  I end up in this position where I somewhat have to point out that a singer like Grove is brought in as a featured guest for a reason – she’s out there crushin’ it, every time.  O’Shea’s more than capable of carving out a similar place for herself in music, it’s just a matter of going after it with full confidence now.  Essentially, I don’t wanna hear this incredible lady acquiescing to anyone, you know what I mean?  You’ve got a guest star on your album?  Fantastic!  Now make’em EARN every second they get in one of YOUR songs – you know what I mean?  I like “With You Still” – heck, I like Helen when it comes right down to it…but I’m still standing by my original assessment in saying that I know she’s got more in the tank than she’s shown us so far, and equally confident that she’s got the right mix of determination and talent it takes to get there.  “With You Still” is a pretty song at the end of the day.  Don’t get me wrong, she’s got many moments you’ll find her vocals shining along the way, and the music sounds great too.

Some of these tunes…four out of the ten to be exact, you might recognize from Helen’s debut album called Turning Tides from back in 2017.  These songs have been updated for Sturdy Souls, like “Moments (SS Version)” for example – and I can understand what she was going for.  It can reinforce the mission we’re on as artists to hear our own evolution at work.  When I went back and listened to the original, it was pretty clear once again that Helen has always been able to sing, but it also had me appreciating how far she’s obviously come as a performer in a relatively short time in hearing the latest version of “Moments” too.  Where the rubber meets the road is whether or not you believe that pulling this song forward into the present was as necessary as she might have felt it is…and that might be a bit more up for debate.  As I frequently remind people, we can spend our lives inside of a single song if we let it – and more often than not, I feel like the best path is always forward.  I like “Moments (SS Version)” and I like the humbleness of her beginnings on the original version I was listening to as well.  Do I feel like her career benefits from bringing the past material into the present?  I mean…I’d never heard it before, so it was new to me…but I think O’Shea will find herself more confident as an artist eventually going with a fully refreshed lineup in the future to follow.  To find the best in what she’s capable of, I’m positive that the path leads forward, not backwards – but I’ve full respect for being able to hear the growth in her evolution as an artist on “Moments (SS Version),” it’s important to mark the milestones as we pass’em.

Besides…it’s not like Helen’s the only one out there looking to touch-up the past *cough *cough *Taylor Swift…it happens, it’s a thing, people do it.  I listen to a track like “Aftermath (SS Remix)” which was also in the previous lineup of tunes, and it makes more sense to my ears to bring this song back…I feel like there’s a whole lot of Helen in this track and it’s inarguably some of the best I’ve heard from her to-date.  I’m always looking for that connection between the artist and the music they’re making…or in cases of a singer/songwriter, I wanna hear them really feeling that moment & the material…and I felt like O’Shea did such a spectacular job on this updated version of “Aftermath” that she practically left me speechless.  I mean…I exist to comment on music, so I’ll never be completely silent, but you get what I mean – she’s absolutely that good great amazing.  I love the melody, I love the tone of her voice, I love that genuine CONNECTION you can hear flowing perfectly between her and the music.  A lot of “Aftermath” is super sad, and there’s no doubt about that…but it’s also a perfect example of how to turn tragedy into art and a personal victory in terms of growth, healing, and catharsis.  We tend to feel the sad and negative parts of life with more gravity and weight in our emotions…but it’s that same strength in how we feel that can often lead us to some of our most groundbreaking music & art too.  I’d point to a track like “Aftermath” to show you the proof that Helen has come out stronger on the other side of heartbreak.  She sounds absolutely magnificent, graceful, and beautiful throughout “Aftermath (SS Remix)” – this is a significant cut in her catalog that truly shows her exceptionally moving vocals and songwriting in the best of lights.

Soundin’ confident at the start of “For Me And You” as well.  Sometimes it’s just about finding the right pace and space that works for someone, you know?  Each line of “For Me And You” is like its own entity, which ends up giving O’Shea more than enough time to summon the right energy, power, and strength for the line to follow.  That’s at the very least what I’m hearing in the verses.  As for the chorus…honestly I’m not as sure – and she’s kind of got two real hooks in this tune by the time all is said and done.  When it comes to what I’d consider the main hook, I think she gets a good crack at it…but I’m not entirely sure that going higher with her vocals got the most of the potential in the songwriting and the dynamics of the melody in that part.  I like the idea, but I feel like maybe another approach could have gotten a bit more out of it I suppose…and I suppose I could be wrong too – she might very well have tried a few.  At the end of the day, the idea works, and I also believe that it could grow on me even more over time too.  Now…where things get interesting to me, is right around the three minute mark.  I think she did a solid job on the majority of “For Me And You” to begin with, but she turns a good song into a great one around that three minute mark and unleashes a much more effective hook.  Not to toot my own horn & all…but notice that she goes a lot lower with her vocals too.  She sounds robust, bold, confident, and beautiful – all at the same time…in my opinion, I’d be aiming for those kind of results if I were Helen!  She actually ends up reminding me of how like…hmm…I think it was Ann Wilson of Heart that sang their massive hit “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You” wasn’t it?  Yeah!  According to Google it sure was.  Anyhow…that’s the kind of stylistic comparison that O’Shea ends up being in company with as a result of this change in her approach.  Sittin’ right there with Pop/Rock royalty really ain’t a bad place to be y’all.

On her updated version of “Every Mother’s Prayer” in the “SS Version,” Helen has also enlisted a new partner to sing this song with Paul Henry as her featured guest this time around, which is one of the notable differences between the original version and the new one.  So…look…it’s a sweet song at the core of it all, and I’d wager a guess that this is a personal tune that O’Shea has strong feelings towards.  Ultimately, our attachment to what we create is something that should never be discounted, but it can occasionally give us a few blind spots as well in terms of our objectivity.  I don’t mind “Every Mother’s Prayer” and can actually appreciate a lot of the lyricism that Helen has put into this tune.  Lines like “so lift the veil and let us see the you that you were meant to be” is a truly gorgeous line, and I’d never dispute that – I love it.  Does it rescue this entire tune?  That’s probably a bit more of a stretch.  Some of the moments that mean the most to us personally inherently come with the most internal pressure, and I think that even here in the second version of “Every Mother’s Prayer” that she’s recorded, there’s still more for Helen to give to this tune in her performance.  That same pace that was her ally in “For Me And You” becomes a bit of an adversary on this track…to me, this is where you can hear her thinking about what’s coming up, as opposed to feeling it – and that’s the difference dear readers, dear friends.  It’s that slight degree of hesitation between times like 1:00-1:30 that sound like O’Shea’s reading her lyrics at the same time as singing them.  I don’t know that’s necessarily the case, but knowing the material backwards and forwards is pretty much the only way to go…that’s the key.  I also think she’s truly got a much more natural sound in her lower register than her higher one – listen to the bridge in “Every Mother’s Prayer” and you’ll know what I mean.  Do I think this tune needs a further update after this new “SS Version?”  No.  But I don’t think it likely needed this one either – I think Helen probably just wanted to give it one because the song genuinely means something to her on a personal level, and how could that not be as justified a reason as the best of’em could be?  We’re here to make the music we wanna make, create the art we want to leave behind in our legacy, and leave our stamp on the world with what we wanted to say by making it…if Helen wants to make forty more versions of “Every Mother’s Prayer” until she feels like she got all of its potential, I’d understand where she’s coming from.  It might not be my favorite of the bunch, but whatever – who am I?  I’m just another opinion on the internet and there are plenty of me out there.  What matters is that you really can hear that this song has meaning and a personal connection with the artist that made it, and there’s always value in that.

So!  We might need to make room for the next generation.  Helen’s daughter Lauren makes an appearance on “Stay Here Now,” and I’d readily tell ya that the younger O’Shea is one of my favorite voices to be found on this album, leading this track to be one of the most memorable moments on Sturdy Souls.  Do I start a family rift here?  Do I say that Lauren has got that authentic magic on the mic that can’t be taught?  Does she out-sing her mom?  Look…I don’t wanna cause any drama, but from the outside looking in, listening to Lauren come into this tune is like a full-on revelation.  She’s got that sincerely endearing Indie-music magic, and in my opinion, she should definitely be pursuing a career as a singer every bit as much as her mom has been.  Of all the songs that are being considered for a Grammy this year, of which O’Shea has three – I was surprised to find one of’em wasn’t “Stay Here Now” – they make for quite the pairing together.  I’ve seen postings on Helen’s social media that show how much love she’s got for her daughter and can only imagine how special it was for them to share this moment together – but to end up achieving what’s one of the record’s most potently emotional tunes and memorable tracks in the lineup goes beyond expectation.  The second verse from Helen is among some of my favorite moments from the main star of the show on this whole album, and yeah…I gotta admit, I think the main hook sung by Lauren is absolutely amazing, full stop.  Mom’s gotta be proud of ya Lauren, I guarantee it.  The younger O’Shea couldn’t have nailed that moment any better than she has, and in the end between the two of’em, they’ve come up with a seriously accessible song that would appeal to everyone.  This is the kind of cut that would bridge the gap between genres and styles and ages and all that…I can’t say enough about how much of a highlight “Stay Here Now” becomes in this lineup overall.

“Sturdy Soul” IS one of the three songs that Helen has in the running for a Grammy award this year.  I’m gonna be THAT guy that says I still stand by what I said previously in the review I wrote at the start of October, because of course…that’s just who I am and how I write about what I listen to.  I’m also not the guy that’s ever gonna be in favor of awards & all that when it comes to meaningful art…BUT…I do ‘get it’ and understand what an honor that would be.  As long as it’s not the main goal, I’m usually pretty cool with it.  Anyhow.  You can read my original review on “Sturdy Soul” by clicking here if ya like…it’ll give you more details.  One fact I can tell ya that I didn’t know when I originally wrote about it, is that it’s actually a song that Helen wrote for one of her own heroes, Brandi Carlile.  So to circle back to the whole awards dealio, that fact makes the honor a bit cooler in my opinion – think of how awesome it would be to be recognized for writing something in tribute to someone that helped shape who you are!  It’d be next-level awesome right?  Congratulations Helen, sincerely.  Whether you win, whether you don’t…all that’s arbitrary my friend…your efforts have been recognized, and that truly means a lot.  It’s something that can never be taken away, and it’ll sure make for a great conversation starter, I promise.

You know…when I first crossed paths with Helen’s music not that long ago, I was reading about her calling her sound “AmeriCeltiCana” – and am I crazy or is the middle part of that assessment still a bit MIA?  I don’t have a ton of experience with Celtic music, but I have SOME…and I’m just not sure that I’ve been hearing it as a prevalent aspect of the songs she’s been creating.  That’s not a knock against her, just an observation.  Like…I mean…it freaked me right out at first when I was listening at the start of the month, and I braced myself before feeling like she’s much more “AmeriPopFolkCana” than anything else – but I’ll admit, that doesn’t quite have the same ring now does it?  “Please Be Kind (SS Version)” is one of those tunes that feels incredibly familiar, even if it’s new to ya…and I reckon that’s where the more traditional aspect of her writing style & sound comes into play.  I am rarely “the rainbow in somebody’s cloud” and I’ve personally got a face made for the shadows, but I appreciate where she’s coming from on this song and I dig the positivity she’s sharing.  I might be the grumpiest of the grumps and moody AF the majority of the time…but I can get behind the occasional dose of sunshine too.  “Please Be Kind” is the last of the songs that O’Shea has brought into the present from her last record, and I’d say this was another good call – this is another of my favorite performances from Helen on Sturdy Souls.  She’s got the right level of sweetness in this song, and a mellow cool to go with it that really works.  Solid backup vocals in the mix…the music is on-point…I mean…it’d take a serious A-hole to bag on a tune like this I’d figure.  I might be a lot of things in life, but I’m never one of those…intentionally.  “Please Be Kind (SS Version)” is A-OK with me…the world would be a much better place if we had a few more songs like this one.  It’s inspiring, uplifting, and relentlessly sweet…Helen’s got beautiful perspective on the world and she’s singing her truth on “Please Be Kind” – a whole lot of people will connect to this meaningful song.

Like…I have no idea how awards tend to work or what gets certain tracks nominated while others are left out of the running…it’s not usually something I pay attention to, so the mechanics of how the machine works are beyond me.  But how “Aftermath,” “Stay Here Now,” “For Me And You,” and “Someone Is Waiting” didn’t make the list when “With You Still,” “Sturdy Soul,” and “Holy Mother” did – I dunno y’all…it just seems like opinion more than fact, ain’t it?  I could probably get behind “Holy Mother” as an official selection…and I like the other two tunes – but I’m always gonna think I’ve got the strongest bead on the material that truly connects to us the strongest.  “Someone Is Waiting” is a really well-written tune…pretty deserving of an award in my personal opinion, at the very least in that category.  I don’t know if it would qualify in terms of originality or performance as much…but we can debate that I guess.  I feel like in terms of the writing, it’s one of the strongest cuts from Helen O’Shea.  I think she also really got to the heart of the hooks on this tune as well.  You combine that with the sincerity you’ll find in the guitar notes trailing into the air with the distance of the beat in the background, and I’m tellin’ ya…”Someone Is Waiting” has got a whole lot goin’ on.  Lyrically, it’s sound, and it’s certainly beautiful.  HOW she didn’t end up using the REAL hook of this song, located between 2:55-3:10 much more than we hear it…that’s the unsolved mystery dear readers, dear friends.  That’s the kind of part you stand back and marvel at…and then go back to rewrite your entire song around.  A great hook can be a blessing and a curse sometimes.  A blessing because you were able to create something absolutely extraordinary, like Helen has on “Someone Is Waiting” within those fifteen seconds – and a curse when you realize that’s the only moment where you get that specific magic you wanna hear over and over and over!  I mean…I’ve been playing this on repeat throughout the past week – I’ve been able to manufacture the dosage I’m looking for – but would I have taken a whole lot MORE of it?  Heck yeah!  And I still would.  Even after how much I’ve spun my way through Sturdy Souls from start to finish, I never get tired of hearing the sound of a moment as perfect as that one is, and I doubt that I ever will.  It’s a really wonderful highlight for Helen’s vocals and one of my favorite spots in this lineup of songs that instantly pushes a good song into becoming a great one, every single time I hear it.

I was never all that well versed in the music of Eric Clapton, so when I originally commented on “Holy Mother” back at the start of October, that completely flew over my head.  I had no idea that it was his tune…but I can vouch for the fact that it’s definitely a track that deserves the attention and accolades it’s been receiving with respect to how Helen and guest-star Alexander Simone tackled the material.  It also makes for a really conclusive ending to Sturdy Souls as well – you feel like that was the finale tune when you hear it come around, and that’s the kind of finish you want to end a set-list of songs.  The kind where we all feel extremely satisfied and encouraged to repeat the experience all over again…that’s what you’re aiming for, and it’s what Alexander and Helen achieve together in their performance.  I’d say this track likely has the best shot at taking home the hardware this awards season…but again, what do I know?  I ain’t on the academy, that much I can confirm.  I’m just a guy that likes to talk tunes with ya, and if by the end of my run more than five people know my name for all that I’ve said, I’ll be happy & grateful to have two hands to count ya on.  O’Shea has done well with this record, and I feel like she’s got an even brighter future ahead of her.  Check out more of my thoughts on “Holy Mother” and Helen’s music by clicking here – and make sure to support O’Shea this awards season and find out more about her by visiting her official page at Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/helenosheamusic

You won’t actually READ this message, but imagine a world where you did!  You’d know you could be the next up on our pages at sleepingbagstudios by clicking here!



"I’m passionate about what I do, and just as passionate about what YOU do. Together, we can get your music into the hands of the people that should have it. Let’s create something incredible."

Send this to a friend