Rating: 3.5 stars
There are two Angel Snows. On one hand, there’s the sweetly sensitive singer-songwriter – an obvious niche for a one-time Nashville open-mic hustler whose big break arrived penning lyrics for Alison Krauss. On the other hand, there’s the mystical, brooding siren – citing musical influences like Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, exploring a darker, airier, more nuanced version of country-folk. On her self-titled sophomore album, those two Snows are at constant war with each other – with mostly breathtaking results.
Opener “Lie Awake” strikes a perfect balance. Snow’s voice is vibrant and effortless – husky in all the right places, oozing with sensuality on the track’s smoke-screen chorus. The melody is instantly hummable, grounded by frosty acoustic fingerpicking, dusty hi-hats, and piano lines that fall as softly as dew drops. In its original form, this haunting ballad (co-written by Snow and songwriting partner Viktor Krauss) served as the glowing centerpiece of Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Grammy-winning comeback effort. In Snow’s hands, a lovely but otherwise typical country slow-burner is nurtured into something more restrained and heartbreaking – tense chord changes offer shades of light and dark, mirroring the lyrics, which paint a vivid, inescapable picture of domestic abuse. “He’s right behind me / Please God, I can’t be found; don’t cast another stone,” Snow sings, her voice swallowed in shame, “And if he wakes, that’s when my heart breaks / And I’m as good as gone.” The beauty is all-encompassing, but there’s no ecstatic release, no cathartic epiphany on the horizon.
Snow’s own take on “Lie Awake” is the far superior version, but – somewhat ironically – it wouldn’t have existed had Krauss not taken a crack at it first. In fact, Snow can trace most of her success straight back to Krauss, and their fated introduction several years back at the Nashville home of a mutual friend. Snow passed along a CD, and Krauss liked what she heard, introducing the budding songwriter to her brother Viktor. The pair’s musical chemistry was swift and immediate: Their initial writing sessions sprouted “Lie Awake,” along with two other fragile ballads (“These Days,” “A Place Outside”) that originally appeared as Paper Airplane bonus tracks. Both are reprised on the Pledge Music-funded Angel Snow, and unsurprisingly, they’re delivered with more subtlety and genuine emotion by Snow herself: Her voice is front-and-center on “These Days,” circling in graceful harmonies over minimal Wurlitzer chords and flakes of feathery acoustic. Krauss may have introduced these gems to a much larger audience, but Snow brings them to life.
Perhaps it’s a result of writing for other voices, but Snow’s weakest songs sound somewhat anonymous, comfy yet lacking a distinct personality. She lands many a soulful vocal sweet-spot on the strummy, simmering “Civil Things,” but the tune never blossoms, marred in part by Lilith Fair-primed production that harkens back to the glory days of, well, Sophie B. Hawkins. “Stay Away” offers a pleasantly bland mid-tempo jazz-country shuffle, filled with Hallmark-ready lyrics that should have never left her laptop: “I want you to marry me when the tide rolls in, pulls us under love,” she sings over steel-guitar sighs and lazily brushed drums. “You get me high like fireworks into the sky.”
These low-points pale further when compared with the album’s many highlights: Having a name as unbearably precious as Angel Snow brings certain expectations, but when the singer’s split-personality pits her flowery side against her sinister side, the latter always wins. The witchy, bluesy “As You Are” feels like a traditional folk ballad beamed in from another galaxy, sort of like Stevie Nicks as engineered by Nigel Godrich. The fidgety “You Won’t Cry” takes a similar trajectory, occupying a sonic realm both ancient and startlingly modern, with crackling percussion elements pattering with acoustic plucks, augmented by ghostly steel-guitar echoes and waves of synthesizer.
Angel Snow’s journey to this moment has been winding, unpredictable, and slightly miraculous. Her sophomore coming-out party is by no means perfect, but it’s flawed in a way that feels vital and pregnant with possibilities.