Donna Ulisse – Breakin’ Easy
Breakin’ Easy is the latest album from Donna Ulisse, a twelve song collection firmly entrenched in country/bluegrass traditions. that don’t find much commercial favor in our modern world, but Ulisse seems gloriously oblivious to that fact. This is clearly music she loves and her command over its tropes and characteristics is total – we never feel like this is someone trying a new style on for size but, rather, that we’re in the hands of a performer and musical artist wholly confident in her understanding of the form and how to best use it to express herself. Much of the album can be neatly divided along bluegrass and classic country lines with a smattering of blues influence working its way in. The lyrical content definitely manages to find its way out of the customary boxes bluegrass and country tunes are lodged into, but Ulisse isn’t opposed to showing her mastery of traditional turns and subject matter in the genre.
The blues influences in the music make their presence felt immediately. “Without Trouble Please” is a lyric steeped in blues, but it’s married to a stirring and deceptively simple bluegrass arrangement that complements it quite well. The album’s second song “Back Home Feelin’ Again” comes from a similar place musically, but the blues of the opener gives way here to something much more uplifting and positive. These sort of efforts, unfortunately, often sound hamfisted and forced in the hands of other bands and musicians, but Ulisse characteristically moves through these sort of tracks with her credibility intact and delivering performances that touch universally held emotions. The sprightly “Made for Each Other” celebrates love in unabashed terms and comes complete with a jaunty mandolin part that gives the song added spring in its step. The multi-award winning singer/songwriter matches the song’s energy with a wide open vocal that captures every bit of the spirit the song attempts to convey.
Much of the album is devoted to a decidedly retro, laid back country feel, but bluegrass influences continue to make themselves felt throughout, under the skilled influence of producer, Doyle Lawson, a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. “I’m in a Hurry to Go Nowhere” is driven by a busy mandolin part that Ulisse fits into quite nicely with her playful vocal. The song shows off the sense of humor, albeit a little dark, that rates as one of the album’s underrated strengths. Tracks that fall more squarely into the country camp like the bluesy ballad “Drive This Cold Out of Me”, “A Little Past Lonely”, and “Where My Mind Can Find Some Rest” are pulled from Country Songwriting 101 and Ulisse, alongside her musical partners, deliver stunning performances that invoke that traditional feel without ever succumbing to imitation. The second and third of the aforementioned tunes, in particular, rank as peaks on an a uniformly satisfying release. The former hits all of its marks as a classic country tune about getting past heartbreak and moving on while the latter assumes almost spiritual connotations that Ulisse nicely plays up without ever underscoring it too much. Breakin’ Easy does come across as easy – flowing, relaxed, and eager to connect with its listeners. It is a breezy new direction for Ulisse with this first project since her signing with the Mountain Home Music label. Few 2017 releases in this vein will match it or better it.