Letitia VanSant's Debut 'Gut It to the Studs' Keeps the Focus on Her Voice and Lyrics

Letitia VanSant's strengths are her sweet singing voice and her lyrics. Gut It to the Studs is a sparsely arranged folk album that plays to those strengths.

Gut it to the Studs
Letitia VanSant

Letitia VanSant Music

2 Feb 2018

Letitia VanSant's official debut album is a restrained folk record that finds power in VanSant's voice and lyrics. She had a couple of minor releases before this (another solo record and a full band album credited to Letitia VanSant and the Bonafides), although, with everything available online, I'm not sure minor releases can be dismissed as not counting, as her PR people are trying to do here. Anyway, producer/upright bassist/backing vocalist Alex Lacquement and VanSant have put together a collection of songs that are mostly sparsely arranged, the better to keep the focus on VanSant herself.

Living in the Houston area, the title track "Gut It to the Studs" has a special resonance for me post-Hurricane Harvey with thousands of homes here still in a literally gutted state. But the song wasn't written with an actual natural disaster in mind. It's a relationship study that finds VanSant trying to mentally deconstruct her situation and figure out if there's anything worth saving. It's one of the album's more upbeat songs musically, with a gently loping rhythm section, nice interplay and solos between electric guitar and fiddle, and a great three-part harmony on the chorus. That tension between lyrics and music gives the song a sense of catharsis, which ultimately makes it uplifting.

That song is an outlier on the album. "Come Sit By My Fire" is musically more indicative of VanSant's sound. It's a slow song anchored by a simple acoustic guitar strum and VanSant's singing. Lacquement adds some tasteful arco bass in the song's opening half and quiet harmonies here and there. But mostly the focus stays on Letitia, offering comfort in dark times and emotional support while making clear that she can't fix the other person's problems.

There's a whole run of simple folk songs like this in the middle of Gut It to the Studs, but each one is different enough to keep them from blurring into each other. "Taking Back the Reigns" is distinctly minor key, featuring atmospheric electric guitar flourishes and wordless country crooner warbles from VanSant throughout. "Sweet Bay Magnolia" is the gentlest song on the album, with a wistful VanSant joined by Laura Wortman on harmonies and more tasteful bass accompaniment from Lacquement. "The Field" finds VanSant putting her goals for self-improvement in farming terms. "Ohh / Let me feel the sunshine / Let me feel the rain", isn't the most original sentiment, but VanSant's commitment to the metaphor is impressive. Each of the three verses covers another set of chores on the farm, concluding with "Let me take down the fences that keep others out / Let them come and take what they need / Let us sit at a table and eat our fill / And be grateful for tomorrow's seed."

Near the end of the album, VanSant gets a bit referential. She pulls out a cover of Buffalo Springfield's still-overplayed '60s protest song "For What It's Worth" and gives it a pretty good reading. Her take removes the iconic echoing guitar riff and keeps the arrangement subdued without taking away the song's lyrical heft. VanSant, a native Baltimorean, was an activist before becoming a full-time musician, so the song seems like an appropriate choice for her to cover. Also near the end of the record is "Dandelion", which nicely references Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" in its opening lines. "They paved over this paradise before you were born / Left an asphalt desert of strip mall stores." The song goes on to attack corporations that continually coax savings out of poor people and highlight the difficulty of feeling rooted to a place when every suburb looks and feels the same.

The record closes with "Sundown Town", a dark song about staying out of bad areas in the city. In some hands, this would feel menacing, but with VanSant's pretty voice, it merely sounds wary. "It's a sundown town / Oh, people like you, they shouldn't hang around," could be a threat, but here it just sounds cautious. But VanSant, who spent plenty of time attempting to help people in the areas she's describing, sticks a needling moral in the middle of the song. "There are thousands out there like me / All nestled in our shells / We'll watch others fight for freedom / From the safety of our cells." That occasional bite, however sweetly it's delivered, is what keeps Gut it to the Studs from being saccharine. That attitude is also apparent in the opening line of the album, on "Where I'm Bound". "As my mother lay dying / She called me to her side / 'My time draws near, my dear / So listen close, my child.'" Gut It to the Studs is a confident album that plays to VanSant's strengths and is well worth listening to for the folk-inclined.

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