Foy Vance's 'To Memphis' Is Solid But Safe

Photo: Gregg Houston / Courtesy of Elektra Records

On his second release of 2019, To Memphis, Foy Vance embraces the Americana and folk rooted in his songwriting.

To Memphis
Foy Vance

Gingerbread Man

6 September 2019

Following the release of 2016's The Wild Swan, Foy Vance discovered a collection of songs entitled 'Soul' and 'Americana' while digging through his old demos. These songs have served as the inspiration for his two album releases of 2019 as the Northern Irish singer-songwriter goes back to his roots to explore those musical traditions that influenced his songwriting. Building upon those 'Soul' demos, Vance released From Muscles Shoals earlier in the year, and has developed the 'Americana' songs to now release his fifth studio album To Memphis. Similar to his recording From Muscles Shoals at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals (famous for producing a large number of soul hits), Vance recorded To Memphis at Sam Philipps Recording Studio in Memphis; heading to the source of the sound responsible for his development as a musician and songwriter.

As promised, To Memphis delivers a record rich in American folk. Vance has exchanged the bright horns, soulful grooves, and rhythmic focus of his most recent album for melodic fingerpicked acoustic guitar, brooding vocals, and gentle organ. Like his more recent releases, Vance's vocals are noticeably gruffer and more gravelly than his early work, as he releases throaty bellows on tracks like "Wind Blows Chloe" while other times restraining to gentle, soft intonations on the likes of "Have Me Maria". Always feeling comfortable and unstrained, Vance meanders between crisp singing and mumbled moans, although his faux Southern American accent often strays from convincing imitation to pastiche.

For much of the album, this folk foundation is taken in a pop-oriented direction as Vance embraces broader instrumentation and places less emphasis on his acoustic guitar. Opening track "I Was Born" has Vance powerfully crooning over a thick mix of plodding drums, piano, vocal harmonies, acoustic strumming, and interspersed organ flourishes. As in most of these more pop-oriented songs, the acoustic guitar features very little, either doubling the piano or playing short leads, as the wider instrumentation takes the spotlight. Tracks like "Only the Artist" take this further as the instrumentation is expanded outside of that usual to folk, incorporating electric guitar and electronic piano, and resting on a standard rock drum groove.

Of these animated tracks, the standout is certainly "The Strong Hand" with a slightly darker tone, fantastic vocal melodies and a marvelous arrangement of poignant vocal harmonies, making it more engaging than most tracks on the album. The other pop-oriented tracks feel somewhat unremarkable as they tend to hit the standard marks of a pop song, dusted in a folk sheen. What they do, they do well but feel too safe to be particularly noteworthy.

Vance offers some minimalist arrangements towards the end of the album, duetting his voice and acoustic guitar. "Alice From Dallas" sees Vance lament over a past love, in typical rhyming fashion and minimal acoustic accompaniment. Similarly, Vance repeats this sentiment on "The Christ and the Crook" (alongside some additional vocal harmonies and vocal embellishments) and closing track "We're Already in Heaven".

Strangely close on the tracklisting for songs that sound so tonally similar, their instrumental accompaniment is also disappointingly meager. "We're Already in Heaven" features more arpeggiated chords and embellishments. But much of the acoustic guitar on these tracks amounts to simple strumming, providing little that's immediately engaging. Fortunately, Vance's vocals, seamlessly shifting from pained to pleading, carry the songs through.

To Memphis is a solid but safe album that plays to Vance's strengths and familiarities; perhaps to be expected from an album dedicated to the sounds of those who first inspired him. Offering a mix of pop-oriented folk and minimalist acoustic ballads, the tracks hit the right numbers but do little to expand outside of well-trodden ground.

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