Hilary Scott’s new EP Still (2011, Belltown Records) is a well-played, durable sampler of original music (punctuated with a somber cover of Leonard Cohen’s rapturous “Hallelujah”) from an established and talented artist with an impressive arsenal of natural abilities. Though clocking in at only five tracks, Still doesn’t feel like a short-winded collection of songs meant to simply tide over fans between records given the general strength of the output, and instead is a stand alone outing replete with much to offer on its own.
Still is Scott’s ninth album (eighth studio effort) over a now lengthy career. The band assembled for the record is on top of it, and alongside Scott’s formidable instrumental range (she plays acoustic guitar, piano, and organ in addition to helming the vocal duties), AJ Gennaro’s drum and percussion work lays an expressive-yet-not-overpowering rhythmic framework over which Josh Shilling’s four-string work (bass and electric guitar) lays squarely in the cut, a focused accompaniment to Scott’s songcraft. The album’s arrangements are well-managed, crisp, and infused with life. Still’s peaks and valleys are palpable, and Scott and Co. are adept at the slow build, borne on the strength of Scott’s expressive and thoughtful vocal delivery.
Pinning down influences on Hilary Scott and the New County Line is both somewhat difficult as well as fairly straightforward (if you can dig it). There’s a lot percolating around in there. Take a dash of this and a little more of that as you like it: Joan Baez, Natalie Merchant, Alison Krauss, Regina Spektor, Tori Amos…if it sounds like cherry picking, that’s because it is, and with good reason, as all these artists and more make their way into Scott’s sound. Perhaps easier is to hit on some loose genres and let one’s imagination take over, so here goes: pop, country, Americana, gospel, the new Nashville sound, folk, the sound of long car-trips across the American Midwest…you get the picture. Scott’s voice is strong, and the underpinnings of her music skew towards a personalized sound-collage of various tangents of American pop and neo-Americana of the past few decades. What’s there is both fresh and familiar.
Still opens with “Untitled (So Long)”, kicked off with a slowly unwinding, simple bit of piano accompanied by Gennaro and Shilling’s smart background work that nicely underlays Scott’s floating lyrical embellishments, coalescing together slowly until finally opening up into the elated church-organ feel of the Hammond around 3:34 or so. Given the slow-build and the painstaking restraint up to this point that the listener can feel coming early on, it’s almost a shame that the Hammond is so buried in the mix here; the instrument’s classically ecstatic sound acts as a strong counterpoint to Scott’s lamenting “Gonna find you before too long…”.
“Labor of Love” picks things up a bit, moving more into Baez/Merchant territory both musically and vocally. With a forward-lean to the arrangements and a playful lilt to the lyrics, Scott attempts to sway an assumedly aloof love interest: “The labor of life is not the labor of love,” she sings in the chorus, vowing as the song ends to “…catch you, you might like being caught…”. As a side note, the handclaps listed in the liner notes make a nice entrance here, and the song features some memorable vocal manipulations vaguely reminiscent of Doris O’Riordan’s on-key Irish yodel.
“Fighting Odds (Take What You Get)” follows, with a compact moodiness nestled in the arms of the well-crafted song-structure. An exceptional song, the track is just the right blend of engaging lyrics, well-handled instruments, and arrangement dynamics. Especially of note is the shimmering guitar drifting over Scott’s chorus vocals like smoke; this track does what it needs to do, and does it well. A total package.
The album’s final original song and title track, “Still” is one of the truly stand-out numbers here. Scott’s mournful ballad to undying affection and the delicate immediacy of the present moment brings out both her personalized composure as a song-writer and the inherent strengths of her backing band. Which is a good example of the disc as a whole. Though the lyrics on Still alternate between opposing poles of clever and simplistic, “Still” is a good example how the strength of the overall project often acts to uplift a quotidian idea into something more than the sum of its parts. “Still” paints a scene of beauty and heartbreak that is magnified by the unified front of The New County Line’s perfect ensnaring of the proper mood. Good stuff.
And of course then there’s the Leonard Cohen cover. An oft-covered song by an enigma of a songwriter and a living legend, the seminal “Hallelujah” has been reworked by so many varied and amazing artists that it could (should?) be considered a songwriter’s rite of passage to try his/her hand at it. Not that that has stopped Cohen from recently wondering aloud if people shouldn’t give it a rest, but that’s none of our concern here. When the giving is that good, you just keep on keepin’ on. Scott and Co’s version is an even-handed, squarely in the pocket rendition that actually hems in and quite nicely reinforces their overall aesthetic, though Cohen’s prophetic images are somewhat buried in the approach. However, no major complaints here overall; the cover is really well played, and hits all the familiar changes with appropriate passion and pathos. Hard not to with that number. Damn, what a song.
Review by Reed Burnam
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)