In her latest project, Stephanie Winter, formerly of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, captures the essence of a melancholy stroll by an English seaside.
"Stephanie Says", of course, was one of the Velvet Underground's greatest songs, arguably their most affecting ballad, a tale of clinical depression bathed with an almost baroque beauty. Stephanie Says is the new solo project from singer Stephanie Winter, formerly of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group and current Autumn Leaf. Unlike all those Syd Barrett fans who got misled by the Gigolo Aunts, Velvet Underground fans who stumble upon Sex, Socialism, and the Seaside will find that Stephanie Says actually does carry on the hazy melancholy sound of "Stephanie Says", albeit while working in a radically different genre.
Winter seems on the fence about whether she'd a) rather go back in time to the '60s and become a French chanteuse or b) rather go back in time to the '60s and sing in a bossa nova band. Instead, she combines the two gentle styles, backed up by various friends including the bulk of the Autumn Leaves. Not that Sex, Socialism, and the Seaside sounds like a huge collaborative effort. Winter's breathy vocals and spare guitar work are always in the foreground, and her production work makes sure that emphasis is placed on both the notes and the silences between the notes. The openness of the production is crucial for the album's success, as the album succeeds more on the strength of its breezy yet sorrowful atmosphere rather than on the strength of its songs.
It's not that Winter is a poor songwriter, "Another Time", for instance, is a sweet-and-bitter tale of an uncertain relationship, where intentionally clumsy lines suggest the tenuous nature of the love affair: "You know I love you / Because I told you". "England" smartly reworks the "I do love to be beside the seaside" shanty into the chorus of a shimmering indie-pop song dedicated to celebrating the joys of the English lifestyle, including free health care (this would be part of the "socialism" theme, I'm guessing). There is nothing wrong with the quality of the songs except that the songs are not quite the point with the style of indie-nova (hey, I'm a music critic I have to label it something) that Stephanie Says specializes in.
Stephanie Says produces pure melancholic atmosphere, and sharper hooks or tighter songs would only detract from this mood. Instead, hooks are buried deep within the music, carrying its listeners just as far along as the next track. The songs never linger too long, usually hovering a little past the three minute mark, and tend to pleasantly blend into each other. The album floats by like a lazy Sunday, where else, on the beach: the time passes much too quickly, and you can't remember if anything particularly exciting happened, but you do know that the time was pleasurably spent.
Unfortunately, the album's breezy nature is its strength and its weakness. Sex, Socialism, and the Seaside by its own nature, cannot be anything more than a pleasant diversion. It is not an album that will demand to be listened to, it is more of a situational album. Living in Florida, I can tell you that lounging on the beach all day can grow into a stale routine. Stephanie Says's debut is a thirty minute tranquilizer, or the soundtrack for a moment of wistful brooding, but its ambitions go no higher than that. In fact, if Winter did have grander ambitions, the album probably would have lost the languid appeal that makes it a good listen.
Stephane Says is ultimately a side project, although a fruitful one, and, taken as such, it is a phenomenal success. Winter's breezy voice comes from some timeless era, evoking the past while remaining firmly in the presence, and she manages to link indie-pop with bossa nova in a charming and novel way. It won't radically effect your life, but, then again, neither will a day by the sea.