Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review of Allie Bess & Hannah's "Allie Bess & Hannah Sing"

I posted this on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning:

Review Summary: Harmonies, harmonies, harmonies. Did I mention harmonies?

Allie Bess & Hannah is a new side project by Allie Moss, Bess Rogers and Hannah Winkler, a trio of folk/pop divas from the New York metropolitan area, all of whom are part of an extended group of young musicians who are associated in one way or another with folk artist Ingrid Michaelson. Moss and Rogers are both former members of Michaelson's touring band, and Winkler sang with the band Storyman on a tour where they were Michaelson's opening act. Rogers and Winkler are also members of the band Secret Someones, whom Michaelson once described as being "like Weezer, but with boobies". Basically, there seems to be this whole musical cult going on in Brooklyn these days, possibly involving human sacrifice and chicken blood, with Ingrid Michaelson as its high priestess. Well, OK, I totally made that whole last sentence up, but you get the gist of it.

The Allie Bess & Hannah project is all about one thing: harmonies. All three of them love them, they can't get enough of them. So they decided to come together for a series of live shows and a recording that focuses on "as much three part harmony as possible". Consequently, this 7-song EP (consisting of five covers and two original songs) is as sparsely orchestrated as possible, so that there's nothing to get in the way of the vocals. The final product is a little bit of a mixed bag, but overall, it has a lot to recommend it.

The EP starts with an a cappella version of The Beatles' song "Because". I can see why they decided to try this, and why they put it first, but it's a little bit of a misstep. The pluses are, it's a great song for harmonies, and all three artists have lovely voices and harmonize together beautifully. The problem is the song itself. There's a reason The Beatles didn't record it a cappella -- the song has some long-ass pauses in it, especially around the "ahh-ahh"'s. It sounds great when they're singing, but suddenly you're left with these mind-numbing blank spots. It's kind of like the episode in the original Star Trek series where the guy in the interstellar loony bin has Captain Kirk strapped to a chair and floods his brain with these beta waves and Kirk has to do whatever he suggests, but then later the guy ends up in that chair himself, and the machine just wipes his brain clean because nobody gives him any suggestions, and he just dies because his brain can't handle all of that blank, empty space. Like that. Well OK, actually it's nothing like that, but hopefully you get what I mean -- the song is going great guns, but then it really slams on the brakes when you hit the blank spots. 

The second song is a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams", recorded with a single acoustic guitar and a piano. This one is OK, but there's nothing special about it. Anyone with a pretty voice and a guitar could record a version just as good.

So up to this point, ABH's little experiment seems to be falling flat. Then abruptly, things start looking up, beginning with the third song, an original credited to all three women. Again, it's a simply orchestrated song, just 3 grrls and an acoustic guitar. This one clicks, however, especially when they hit the chorus: "With hearts awake/We feel the break/We're face to face/Staring at the truth like we are not afraid." Suddenly they're not just three gals singing around the campfire, they're artists, and they're demanding your attention. It gets better.

The fourth track is a cover of a song by band that's been getting some love (and a little bit of hate) on Sputnik lately, The Beach Boys, and their classic "God Only Knows". Here the musical backing consists of a single piano, but oh, those vocals! I acknowledge that our heroines maybe get a little too cutesy with some of the "doo-doo"'s, but the lead vocal is pure and rich (I think it's sung by Rogers, but I don't know Moss and Winkler's voices well enough to swear it's not one of them), and when they all start singing together, nailing harmonies and then trading vocal lines, the album hits a whole new level. And this isn't even their best song.

The next one is. For the fifth song, the ladies chose a cover of David Bazan's song "Hard to Be". Again, backed by a sole acoustic guitar, ABH bring the harmonies big time, and this time they don't even bother to wait for the chorus, they wade right in on the second line of the song. I have no doubt that when they first conceived of this project, this was the kind of thing they were aiming for. Well, target nailed! So long, and thanks for all the fish! (OK, I have no idea what that last line means in this context, I just got a little excited. Sorry about that.)

The rest of the EP doesn't quite maintain the heights of the aforementioned 3-song arc, but by then, it's fine, because I as a listener am already happy. "Day After Day" is an original credited to Rogers and Chris Kuffner (who previously played with Winkler on that Storyman/Michaelson tour -- say, maybe this is a cult!). It's a decent song, and the closing is particularly strong. The final song, "Losers", is a Belle Brigade cover. It's a solid treatment, but I'm not crazy about the song itself on this one.

On the whole, I think this EP does what it set out to do -- it highlights the beautiful voices of three talented young artists. Hopefully, people will hear it and want to check out some of their other work, both as solo artists and in their various side projects such as Secret Someones. I'm more familiar with Rogers than I am with Moss or Winkler, and I can promise you her solo stuff is really good. I'm definitely going to check out Moss's album, and while Winkler doesn't seem to have released too much solo work yet (except for one single), I'll be keeping an eye out for her future projects as well. Maybe I'll even go to Brooklyn and sacrifice a chicken or two to the great goddess Ingrid. Or maybe I'll just settle for writing this review.

Rating: 3/5 stars