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(Virgo Sun Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/26/2014)
I like to call them chanteuses, women of contemporary music who add a bit of jazz, some of the atmosphere of the old-fashioned torch singer, and a romantic flare. Norah Jones was the one whose popularity paved the way for recordings by quite a few such artists, who are almost the complete opposite of the rock and pop stars on the commercial music scene. There has been a fair number whose work we have featured in this review series such as Madeleine Peyroux, Sara Gazarek, and Vienna Teng. This week we have another worthwhile addition to the ranks. It's Rachel Eckroth, whose new CD is called Let Go.
Pianist, songwriter and vocalist Rachel Eckroth has the ideal background for this kind of music. She grew up in the Phoenix area on jazz in a musical household in which both of her parents are musicians and is her brother. By the time she was in high school, he was performing in Phoenix jazz clubs. She then attended the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and stayed there for a while taking jobs backing other performers who appeared in Las Vegas' many entertainment venues. But eventually, she decided to head East and studied at Rutgers University, graduating in 2005 with a MFA in jazz performance, She returned to Phoenix and resumed her work in the music scene there, and released her first album under her own name called Mind with a jazz trio.
But she eventually moved back to the East Coast, settling in Brooklyn in 2011 and experienced what she describes in her website as "an inspired, productive and cathartic year in New York City," that eventually yielded the songs on this CD. So unlike some of the other of the current crop of chanteuses, Ms. Eckroth is the songwriter, composing or co-composing all the material on her album. It's also a stylistically eclectic and varied recording. It does not settle into the kind of retro groove that many of the other chanteuse singer usually adopt. While Ms. Eckroth's jazz background is sometimes apparent, the recording can be sonically adventurous, and there are some unlikely ingredients for this kind of record, such as a distinctive turn toward the 1960s psychedelic atmosphere and a couple of more rock-oriented tunes. The instrumentation is also an interesting mix. It ranges from almost a jazz group to tunes with horns and strings to more intimate-sounding arrangements. She writes mostly about relationships, but there is a lyrical cleverness or wittiness that one often hears in jazz.
Ms. Eckroth recorded some of the music in Arizona and most in New York. With the two recording venues, the personnel varies, but one of the most frequent members of the cast is keyboard man Jesse Fischer, who also produced a few of the tracks and co-wrote two with Ms. Eckroth. Between Fischer and Ms. Eckroth a number of vintage keyboards are used which help to evoke the sound of the psychedelic era and the 1970s. There are also some sonic tricks that were used back in the day that became part of Ms. Eckroth's CD.
Opening is one of the tunes that was recorded in Arizona, Gold, which captures well the interesting mixture of instrumental sounds on this album, with its somewhat mysterious, slinky sound. Ms. Eckroth created the subtle string arrangement that adds to the spooky atmosphere. <<>>
One of the tracks with a distinctly retro sound is called, ironically, Future. With its 1970s funk and fusion sound, the song, both musically and lyrically, has a lot of interesting layers beyond just the retro part. <<>>
A further departure is a song called Sunrise which seems to start out a lullaby and ends up being about the end of an affair. <<>>
One of the most creative pieces on the album is Words Don't Mean on which the psychedelic sonic influence comes into play. The musical setting fits the lyrics well. <<>>
The CD's title track Let Go is accompanied with a very nice string arrangement that Ms. Eckroth created. <<>> But then it evolves into a kind of dark jazzy torch song. <<>>
Ms. Eckroth gets rocky on a tune called Muse. The song is an interesting one, but the sound is not really Ms. Eckroth and her group's forte. <<>>
Also with a retro sound, evoking some of the lighter electric jazz of the 1970s is a very well-done track called More Beautiful Than That. <<>>
The CD ends with Bitter My Heart which also has a bit of stylistic departure in the form of a Dobro which can remind me of the soundtrack of an old spaghetti Western. It's also very effective in conveying the mood of the lyrics. It's just that it leaves the album on a down note. <<>>
Rachel Eckroth's new CD Let Go is an outstaning recording from a jazz-influenced singer who is also a creative songwriter, arranger and keyboard player. The album has a lot more going for it, in terms of musical facets with multi-layered songs and creative eclectic arrangements than most from the women singers associated with the new chanteuse movement. And she also manages to avoid many of the common traits of such records.
Our grade for sound quality is a rare "A." Ms. Eckroth's vocals are captured well, except for a bit of a gimmick effect on one tune, and the instrumentation has a warm sound. There are also some well-handled studio effects that are not allowed to get out of hand. And the dynamic range is considerably better than average. Thankfully, this is not one of those hyper-compressed monotonous pop music records that's all at the same volume.
Rachel Eckroth's Let Go is a great combination of an often-sultry vocalist with original music that has a lot of depth to it. It's one of those records that will reveal something new at each listen. It's most a most impressive work.
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