Pull It Together is, at first listen, a refreshingly clear-eyed record from Shannon Stephens. It shrugs off layers of orchestration from past records, and instead Stephens assembles a crack band behind to create dusty, lean, and often blues-inspired foundations over which she lays her sweet vocals. And those vocals are at their absolute strongest here. She’s brimming with confidence here, and her voice is rangy and powerful as a result.
At her best here, she channels the likes of Bonnie Raitt—albeit without the slide guitar—revealing a deep soul that is filled as much with hope as it is with bitterness. The expansive “Down the Drain and It’s Gone” is the most brooding moment on the record, but also the most bracing. Her whispery verses lead to tense, grinding, yet triumphant choruses where she belts out every word with a eyes-squeezed-shut passion. Meanwhile, on the bright sway of “What Love Looks Like” or the power-pop leanings of “Buddy Up to the Bully”, Stephens’ voice is more tempered and playful, sweet without being hard, vulnerable without sounding self-conscious.
Pull It Together is surely an album of the moment, one that does revel in personal hope and love while also tackling more pragmatic concerns, like economic hardship. On “Out of Sight” she wishes God signed her checks because “he has all the money after all.” She then follows that with a much bigger, almost shapeless worry, wondering, if “He’s the one that made my life, how about making it less difficult?” In moments like these on the record, we see the trouble on the edges, the tension swirling around these self-assured tracks. The best example comes in “Faces Like Ours”, her duet with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It’s a wry and darkly funny take on class and race privilege that plays like a stripped-down campfire diddy. “We’re going to be okay,” Billy creaks. “At least we have white skin.” They’ve also got “rich friends” and they’re “still good looking.” It’s a song about unfair safety nets, for sure, and it’s also the most incisive song on the record, sharpened as much with a clever tongue as it is with its own anger.
It also points to a lack in much of the rest of the record. If that song exists on a tense edge between humor and anger, the rest of these songs don’t have much edge at all. The band here is tight and executes well, but there’s also not much personality to what they’re doing. The bluesy stomp of “Care of You”, for example, never hits as hard as it could. Meanwhile, softer songs like the piano balladry of “Girl” never feel as fragile as they seem to want to sound. Everything here glides at mid-tempo, each song sort of twangs at the same level, and over them Stephens voice is strong, but aside from the highlights, settles into its own comfort zone. There’s a patina of sweetness around it that keeps Stephens hope and anger from getting conveyed in any real way.
You want to feel the frustration she feels, but it isn’t until Billy’s craggy, world-weary groan comes in that much of this hits home. Pull It Together is an album that wants to sound pleasant but over time reveal a shadowy unpleasantness underneath. But none of this is pulled tight enough to snap, and the edges aren’t sharp enough to cut beneath the surface. Instead of spending so much time pulling things together, Stephens and company would have done well to break a few things down.
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// Notes from the Road
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