Shannon Stephens – Shannon Stephens [reissue]

January 01, 1970

(Asthmatic Kitty)

 

www.asthmatickitty.com    

 

Shannon Stephens’ Breadwinner,
released in 2009, was the first inkling, for most people of this Sufjan Stevens
collaborator’s delicate charm.  Yet the
songwriter had another album to her credit, a hard-to-find debut whose
banjo-flecked “I’ll Be Glad” Will Oldham had covered in his own Lie Down in
Light
in 2008. Asthmatic Kitty has now reissued the debut, recorded with
Marzuki bandmates Sufjan Stevens, Jamie Kempers and Matt Haseltine in 2000, and
it is just as shyly pretty, just as luminously poised between folk and jazz, as
Breadwinner.

 

You can start with
Stephens’ voice, pure at its core but smudged with shadows, as it veers  off unexpectedly from breathy lyricism to
darker, jazzier slides. She sounds young here, occasionally blunt and
unfinished, but lovely. You can hear bits of Linda Perhacs’ unearthly sun-splotched
bluesiness in cuts like “So Gentle Your Arms” and “Welcome to NYC”, traces of
Lou Rhodes’ gutsiness in “Panic.” Stephens has a jazz singer’s skill with
dramatic swoops, lifting up or flying down in octave intervals and landing
lightly, without effort. She sounds, most of the time, fresh and untouched,
though her lyrics can be dark, even mordantly funny at times. (From “Panic”:
“You’ve got numbers in your brain but I never think you count me.”)  There’s a relaxed home-made feel overall. “I
Want to Be Your Friend” opens with a loud “sshhh” and a giggle, as if Stephens
had to stop ongoing conversation to record her song.

 

Arrangements are simple,
though perhaps not as simple as they seem on the surface. Jamie Kempers layers
in deep, autumnal shadings of cello to songs like “So Gentle Your Arms” and
“Arrows”, while Kenny Hutson of the Vigilantes of Love adds the plangent moan
of pedal steel in “Panic” and “Welcome to NYC.” 
There’s a lot of banjo, too, though that’s credited to Shannon Stephens
herself, rather than producer Sufjan Stevens.

 

The sound of these songs is so
effortlessly pretty, that you might first miss their darker undertones. For the
first version of “Arrows,” for instance, it’s easy to focus on the soft glow of
strings, the lilting upward motion of Stephens’ melody. Later on an electronically
manipulated reprise of the same songs, rougher elements come into play,
exposing the song’s desperate core. This is the one, after all, where Stephens
observes, “I’ve become not as numb as I’d have hoped/I still can feel every
twist and grinding heel.”

 

There are two unreleased songs on
the reissue, effervescently propulsive “My Feeble Heart” and more traditional
waltz-country “The Way Relationships End,” both swathing hard, sad truths in
shimmery gauze. Here, and in the original tunes, there’s a kind of subtle
magic, an artful dappling of light and shadow that the world might have missed
without this reissue, and that would be a shame.

 

DOWNLOAD: “So Gentle In Your Arms,” “Panic,” “My Feeble Heart”
JENNIFER KELLY

 

 

 

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