[12 February 2014]
Meg Hutchinson is a western Massachusetts-born singer/songwriter/guitar-and-piano player who has aspirations, perhaps, of tapping the same audience as Norah Jones managed some 15 years ago. Many of the same ingredients are here: a sweet voice; lush, low-key instrumental arrangements, with the piano front and center but enough other sonic interest to create a full sound; undemanding melodies and subject matter. It’s all terribly comfortable and low-impact, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on adult-contemporary radio (remember that?) back in the 1970s.
Hutchinson’s strengths are easy to pick out. Her voice is warm and comfortable, and if it never particularly stretches past its comfort zone, well, there’s something to be said for knowing what one does well, and sticking to it. Hutchinson doesn’t have a huge vocal range, but her voice is expressive enough to convey various states of nostalgia, heartbreak, wistfulness, and mischief. Hutchinson’s concerns are primarily of the romantic variety, and her lyrics are riddled with animal imagery, underwater scenes, fish and birds and whatnot.
Opening tune “Beyond That” sets the tone with a nimble piano progression, moody drones in the background and a quietly insistent bass line. It’s a strong opening, made stronger by Hutchinson’s plaintive-but-tough vocals. When she declares – insistently, repeatedly – “I’m already beyond that,” we don’t have any idea of what “that” is, but we can be fairly confident that what it is, she isn’t beyond it. It lends an air of mystery to a song already shrouded in sonic gossamer sheets of dreaminess. A great opening, in other words.
It’s not the only good song here, but it is the strongest by a fair bit. The subsequent string of tunes utilizes many of the same elements, but tends to fall into the repetitive, hush-breathed groove. They’re not awful, they’re just not terribly memorable either.
Later on, things fall prey to Meandering Piano Syndrome, as on “Remembrance”, an aimless almost-instrumental tune that suffers from unmoored piano noodling in what is supposed to be, I think, a dreamy and inward interlude that instead just comes off as dull. Follow-up tune “Osa” is quite a lot stronger, with a lively middle section that makes use of some muscular rhythms to inject much-needed urgency into the proceedings.
This comes at the not-quite-halfway point in the album, and it points up the main weakness of the record as a whole: it’s too darn long. At 14 tracks that clock in at something more than 55 minutes, the album has little overall shape to it: it’s simply a chain of similar-sounding tunes that grow increasingly hard to differentiate as things go along. A couple of later songs are strong, like the somber “Turned to You” and the relatively peppy “Safe” – Wow! Percussion! – but overall, the groove that Hutchinson tapped into early on has well and truly turned into a rut by this point. Penultimate tune “Everything More Beautiful”, again suffers from Meandering Piano Syndrome, which doesn’t help matters. Had two or three weaker tracks been omitted, songs would have had a chance to stand out more and the album would have been stronger.
It’s tough to recommend this record, but equally hard to pin a reason as to why not. Hutchinson is a talented multi-instrumentalist and a decent singer, and her album is lushly produced. The songs here just need a bit more juice to set them apart.