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Rachel Efron: Human As I Came
by George Graham
(Adraela Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/24/2021)
A little jazz influence can make a singer-songwriter’s music considerably more interesting, and there have been quite a few who have gone in that direction. Sometimes, it’s in the style of the romantic chanteuse such as Norah Jones, and sometimes the jazz influence can be absorbed in other ways, such as some of Joni Mitchell’s work, or artists like Laila Biali, whose recent album we reviewed last year, and who approaches the music from a jazz-influenced background.
This week we have another singer-songwriter who draws on some jazz influence, collaborating with musicians from that sphere, to create a pleasing album that has a lot of artistic depth. It’s by Rachel Efron, from the San Francisco Bay area, and her new release, her third full-length recording, is called Human as I Came.
A native New Englander, Ms. Efron’s biography says that as a child, she was caught scribbling song lyrics by Paul Simon, the Beatles and Van Morrison on her bedroom walls. Much later, in academic work writing a thesis at Harvard in Social Anthropology, her focus was on “poetics” after doing field work in Nicaragua. But she continued to be drawn to the art of songs, took music theory at Harvard and jazz piano at nearby Berklee College Music, and fused her interests in songwriting. After taking up performing in college, at graduation, she decided to follow her art, moving to the San Francisco area to be part of the music scene there.
She released her first full album in 2005, and was an active performer. But in 2012, she was experiencing health issues, which eventually forced her to stop performing. After a long series of medical consultations, she was finally diagnosed with late stage neurological Lyme disease with her health further deteriorating. Ms. Efron would do some songwriting when the pain and disability permitted.
After a long recovery, she is back with her new album called Human As I Came. Recorded over three years with musicians from New England, including bassist-producer Jon Evans and drummer/percussionist Matthias Bossi, and San Francisco jazz trumpet player and arranger Erik Jekabson, Human As I Came draws on jazz, folk and pop influences to create an album that strikes just the right balance of the elements. Ms. Efron’s songs are articulate lyrically but relatable, the compositions are much more than three-chord pop, but not really full-out jazz either. The moods can range from rock-influenced to a couple of torch-song ballads, served up in her sort of matter-of-fact, often intimate-sounding alto. According to the publicity for the album, Ms Efron recorded the vocals for every song twice, and sometimes those performances are blended.
Opening is a song that reflects the jazz-pop duality of the album, I Changed My Mind, I Want You. The lyrics also reflect a kind of duality. The arrangement epitomizes the skillful blend of influences on the album. <<>>
One of the torch-song ballads with some of the best lyrics on the record is Your Money Costs Too Much. Erik Jekabsen’s horn arrangements adds much to the sound. <<>>
The pop side of the album is represented on the song Still For You, which one could imagine as being performed in country style context. But the musical setting here for this straight-out love song tends to put the jazz influence more on the back-burner. <<>>
Things turn toward the more rock-oriented in sound on A Little Bit of Bad, though the both the song and the arrangement can take some interesting turns. <<>>
Woman Who Remembers You is an interesting tribute to what the lyrics say is a “long lost brother” with some musical references to Gordon Lightfoot and Arlo Guthrie. <<>>
Ms. Efron and her musical colleagues bring in some retro-pop influence on the track called String, which is another of the more energetic sounding songs. <<>>
On the other hand, Until She Tries Her Heart Again ventures into the realm of a cabaret torch song, with the results being another of the highlights of the album. <<>>
The record ends with another song that one could imagine served up as a country tune, a slow waltz called Home to Me. There’s even the emulation of a steel guitar. It’s another old-fashioned love song. <<>>
Human As I Came the new release from Oakland, California singer-songwriter Rachel Efron, her first in about a decade after her lengthy bout with Lyme disease, is a thoroughly worthwhile recording that blends some jazz influence into the singer-songwriter millieau. Recorded over a three-year period on both coasts, the album combines intelligent songwriting with a musically interesting setting, and Ms. Efron’s notably understated vocals. It’s an album that will definitely grow on you, and is one of those recordings that may take a while to be fully appreciated. But there’s a lot there to savor.
Our grade for sound quality is a B-plus. The recording could have been airier and more open-sounding, especially for music like this, with its subtlety. And sometimes Ms. Efron’s quiet vocals almost get lost in the mix.
For me, singer-songwriters on the jazzy side are always welcome if they get it right. And Rachel Efron on her new album hits the jazz-pop mix in just that right place.
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