Stefanie Keys – Open Road
Few artists working within the Americana genre can lay claim to be the sort of well-rounded talent that Stefanie Keys is. There are many fine singers working today, men and women alike capable of turning a relatively mundane phrase into performed poetry by virtue of their phrasing alone, but few actually bring together melody, musicality, and message with such artful coherence and range. Keys is equally at home with gut wrenching blues or R&B as she is essaying the gentlest of acoustic reveries. Her latest release, the third full length album in this California native’s short career, is a ten song confection entitled Open Road and there’s some significance here. Keys writes, sings, and plays like someone for whom the road ahead is indeed open – no more obstacles, trials, or struggles are left to be overcome before Keys can engage listeners with the fullest expression yet of her experience and consciousness. She achieves all of that here with semi-shocking ease.
The loose-limbed tone of the opener is harbinger of what this album is all about. Confidence doesn’t always need to stomp its feet or beat a fist against its chest to announce its presence. “Open Road” begins the album in fine, quietly audacious fashion. While the music might forgo any brash theatrics, the lyrics intermingle familiar imagery with rugged personal turns that hint at the singer’s struggles to discover the open road she sings so convincingly about. The second song “No Tomorrow” has a palpable sense of urgency that comports beautifully with the lyrical message. Despite listeners’ familiarity with that message, Keys never backs away from it and somehow gives it a new spin thanks to the bloodshot eyed force she puts behind it.
The R&B poses she strikes on the atmospheric “City Life” are well supported by the band’s equally evocative and layered musical performance. The musicians assisting Keys with realizing her musical vision never exert any more force than necessary to make their sonic point and certainly embody the hoary musical axiom that the notes you don’t play matter more than those you do. “Cold Day” personifies that approach as well. Keys attempts taking on a subject of social significance with this song and succeeds in communicating her point of view without ever becoming heavy handed or dogmatic while the band does just enough to surround her voice with a colorful, not gaudy, musical landscape. Her rocker side emerges for a final time on the two-fisted “Highway To Your Soul” and it is a song that manages to touch on a wide gamut of emotions lyrically while rarely compromising or softening musically. The following song, “Amos Crain”, strikes a stronger contrast with “Highway To Your Soul”. This has the same richly layered acoustic backing of the earlier “Sleeping Lady”, but Keys steps up her game lyrically quite a bit and gives us the album’s best narrative, a lyric full of pathos and humanity. Humanity is a defining characteristic of this release. Keys often sounds like someone who would be singing these songs even if no one were listening – the fullness of her expression on the magnificent Open Road leads listeners to believe this might be her most personal statement yet.
9 out of 10 stars