Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sara Swenson, the Pearl Snaps and the Soft Touch of Human Ties

It's a kind of irony that Sara Swenson's most famous song, "Time to Go," featured on the season finale of ABC's "Private Practice," is about letting go.  Of course, valuing such an act enough to sing about it comes from thinking about our need for one another, and Swenson's music is about such precious needs.  More often than not, it's about holding on.

Give or take that slippery fish on "Windows and Doors," her new EP, Never Left My Mind, showcases Swenson's voice as a means of connection--reaching out to a lonesome friend across a crowded room ("Never Left My Mind") and holding on "till the morning brings the daylight" ("Brother").  On verses, Swenson's words sound carefully weighed (if you can imagine the ballast that goes into the bouyancy of a Dolores O' Riordan), but when that soaring voice takes flight--with wings I can only describe as a kind of Gaelic lilt--she gathers the listener close against her well above the hard surface of the earth.

She knows "this night's impossible alone," and the musicians surrounding her, the Pearl Snaps, provide true fellowship in the darkness.  Roger Strong's pulsing bass and the driving rhythms and splashes of color from Brandon Graves' drums create the almost invisible foundations necessary for such ethereal work.  They also serve up a whip smart crack on "Windows and Doors" that more than bolsters Swenson's confrontation with an unreliable charmer--turning what could be profound sadness and vulnerability into irreverent strengths.  The guitar work by both Ian Davidson and John Flynn never calls much attention to itself but serves just the right grace notes to complement Swenson's vision.

A perfect example of the way this band works together can be heard on the closing cut, "Always and Everywhere."  Acoustic guitar and mandolin begin a soft conversation behind Swenson's nearly a capella opening pledges.  On the second verse, Sarah Magill's piano works its way in alongside Davidson's steel, and the band's sound builds, turning the song's promises into a kind of manifesto.

Perhaps the most poignant moment here, though, is the quiet, long lonesome night of "Brother."  Piano and electric guitar, drums and cymbal begin drawing beautiful soundscapes across the night sky.  When Swenson sings, "I can't take this dark all on my own," anyone listening can be thankful she doesn't have to.  Thanks to this EP, neither do we.

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