Perhaps best known as the lead singer for Baltimore-based ‘90’s indie-poppers Velocity Girl, Sarah Shannon’s solo work has taken a decidedly different turn on City Morning Song, her second solo album. Named after an old Primal Scream B-side, Velocity Girl’s three early ‘90s albums (Copacetic, Simpatico, and Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts) mixed the feedback-drenched guitar assault of My Bloody Valentine with the sugary melodies of classic pop. The band signed to Seattle’s Sub Pop Records in 1991, and played a key role in helping Sub Pop expand its reputation beyond the Pacific Northwest. After three albums and a few successful singles, including “Audrey’s Eyes” and “Sorry Again”, the band called it a day in 1996. After a brief stint with former bandmates Kelly Riles (bass) and Jim Spellman (drums) in the short-lived Starry Eyes, Shannon moved to Seattle and embarked on a solo career, first releasing an EP on her own Marzipan imprint, before signing with former Posie Ken Stringfellow’s Casa Recording Company and releasing Sarah Shannon, her self-titled debut, in 2002.
After a five-year break from recording during which she got married and became a mother, Shannon signed with Minty Fresh in early 2006, and released her second solo outing this month. Produced by Martin Feveyear, who has worked with Mark Lanegan, Rosie Thomas, Village Green, and John Wesley Harding, among others, City Morning Song is suffused with low-key warmth. Ably backed by Casey Foubert on drums, Yuuki Matthews on bass, Sonny Votolato on guitar, and Matt Perry on piano, the disc features 12 tracks of classic pop music, all written by Shannon herself. Six songs were co-written with Perry.
Recorded at Jupiter Studios in Seattle, City Morning Song is a fairly mellow affair, from the opening notes of the title track, to the melancholic ballad “All We Will Be” closing out the disc. Accented with a string section consisting of Erica Johansen (viola), Nicola Shangrow (violin) and Jennifer Ellison (cello), or with muted trumpet and flugelhorn by Jason Parker, the well-balanced, nuanced arrangements echo Burt Bacharach or the classic pop of Carole King and Dusty Springfield. Shannon’s voice has matured into a more polished instrument than back in the Velocity Girl days that is well suited to the more sophisticated but comparatively spare arrangements, which place it front and center.
In contrast to her melancholy, bittersweet solo debut, this disc feels considerably more optimistic, perhaps reflecting a change in perspective accompanying marriage and motherhood. The disc leads off with the sunny title track. Propelled by a jaunty piano melody, and featuring a lovely trumpet solo, Shannon warns a friend to appreciate life while he can (“You know that we won’t be here too long/ Listen to me you funny sweet foolish thing/ Slow down/Look ‘round”). Next, like much of the album, “Along the Way” finds a mellow groove, using trumpet and piano flourishes to nice effect as Shannon sings sweetly about domestic life (“Seattle in July/ A sleepy morning sigh/ Falling rain so sad/ Your arm across my back”). Most of the record mines a similarly laid-back groove, like “Hey Heartache”, which again features some nice piano work by Perry.
The disc closes with the wistful ballad “All We Will Be” (“Sunshine that shows through the leaves shining wet/ Is reason enough to take just one more step/ Funny how such simple things/ Sum up the reasons we sing”). City Morning Song is a delightful album that sounds great, from start to finish, combining the warmth of Feveyear’s production with a classic pop sensibility and Shannon’s remarkable voice. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for a follow-up!