Stefanie Keys – Open Road
This is the moment when it all comes together for Stefanie Keys. After listening to her latest album Open Road, it seems that her first two releases were dry runs, or dress rehearsals, for the full on exhibition of her talents on display with these ten new songs. She has mastered all the techniques of the Americana form and its respective genres. There’s no tentativeness in her setup, no wavering in her vocal phrasing, and the melodies fueling these tracks are hard to get out of your head. Instead, the album plays like an emotional experience, a controlled catharsis that also manages to entertain the hell out of casual music fans and hardcore devotees alike. This is an artistic statement that never loses it capacity to entertain its target audience.
The opening cut and title song locks the release into a specific mood. There’s a hard won gravitas surrounding Keys’ vocals, lyrical content, and the sharp musical backing she receives. Moreover, there’s also a easy going confidence coupled with this. She sounds steady and assured, but the presentation is equally solid. “No Tomorrow” shifts gears slightly in comparison and finds Keys pushing her strong voice to new levels of emphasis. One might find the song’s message a bit familiar, but there’s nothing familiar about the commitment that Keys puts into this song, far outstripping what many of her contemporaries might have readily conjured. “3 Hours Till Yesterday” comes from a similar place. These are much more straight-forward songs than many of the tracks coming later in the album, but their apparent simplicity is no code word for a lack of technique. Dave Shul’s guitar work stands out, in particular, on these two preceding tracks and Keys is clearly wise to align herself with such a top flight musician.
The album’s softer, more nuanced strains rise to the surface with “Sleeping Lady”. It’s a relatively straight-forward musical composition that achieves some complexity thanks to the careful and vibrant weaving of instruments, but even then, Keys is willing to surprise listeners with some late turns the tune takes. “City Life” holds no such surprises in reserve and, instead, treats listeners to, arguably, the album’s most stylish musical outing. The blues and r&b soul get a hearing here and Keys clearly has the voice and lyrical adeptness to mesh well with that genre. Dave Shul gets a final chance to shine alongside Keys with the late track “Highway To Your Soul”. This is the hardest hitting musical moment on the album but never entirely abandons musicality and melody in favor of bludgeoning the listener. The true climax of Open Road arrives with the splendid narrative “Amos Crain”. This is, far and away, the clearest invocation yet of Keys’ prodigious skills as a writer and it receives exceptional complementary musical backing. Open Road has something for everyone. Many albums promise that but few deliver. Keys sounds at home with a variety of styles and doesn’t betray a single shaky moment throughout the duration of this release.
9 out of 10 stars