Jennah Barry | Holiday | (Forward Music Group)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
You can’t help but be leery when the advance promotional materials for an album describe it as “soft rock” and “AM gold.” After all, hits that fall into those genres include wincingly overwrought (some may say guilty pleasure) fare like Christopher Cross, Neil Diamond, Chicago, America and others often lumped into the “mellow 70s gold” category. Additionally song titles such as “Roller Disco” and “I See Morning” don’t help what, after spinning a few tracks, many will consider a mistaken assumption.
Rather, Canadian singer/songwriter Barry leaves the world of occasionally edgy indie folk rock she established on 2012’s debut for a mellower but far from sugary trip into more mellifluous waters. Thankfully, Barry’s version of “soft rock” is akin to the more thought provoking California-styled sounds of Wendy Waldman, Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and her fellow countrywoman Joni Mitchell than anything in far less challenging waters of what is often described as “yacht rock.”
Think a combination of the Mamas & the Papas without male harmonies, Americana folk-poppers Suzanne Vega and more recently Erin Rae and you’re close to the sound Barry achieves on her sophomore release.
Credit goes to husband, multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Colin Nealis. He captures this tricky balance of honeyed melody, provocative lyrics and Barry’s sweet but far from saccharine vocals without floating off into the musical ethers. She glides through songs such as “The Real Moon” singing “I see a deer standing on a front lawn/Looking very lost/Staring back at me with the same thoughts” over bongos, sax, lap steel and backing vocals. Her gossamer voice and pop approach maintains an edge even with supple backing that creates images of pastel flowers and a stroll down Burt Bacharach’s way to San Jose.
Lyrically, Barry examines human nature, specifically in “Big Universe.” Here she encourages the listener to chill out singing “Full confusion/Ties you up in knots/Always turning/Never stop” atop acoustic guitar and a cushy bed that makes the medicine go down easy. But on the delightful “Pink Grey Blue” she also strips the backing to just solo acoustic guitar before Nealis’ clarinet and a swirling Technicolor woodwind section appear to land the tune over the rainbow and into Oz.
On “Are You Dreaming?” Nealis adds fluttering strings to enhance the titular illusory quality of the tune. The closing “Stop the Train,” the disc’s most melancholy selection, has Barry ruminating that “We are born/Then years go by/And clouds on the rise/Spin illusions/Everybody fights” as the music subtly swells and retreats.
It’s a fitting and somber close to an album that floats and hovers with challenging lyrics and a timeless sound that’s often hypnotic in its lovely, sometimes surreal, often delightful qualities.