Juanita Stein - America

by Bill Golembeski Rating:7 Release Date:2017-07-28

It is and it isn’t, but then it really is.

And that’s not a bad thing. This is the former Howling Bells singer Juanita Stein’s solo debut. It’s called America. And, yes, the very first song “Florence” starts with a few notes that echo like a soundtrack to western movie that opens with Clint Eastwood riding slowly into Tombstone. It’s a nice song, the story of Florence, that does ring with “Americana” and it invokes the hopes, dreams, and perhaps the reality, of this Promised Land. Even the lofty chorus is set against the down to earth verses that evoke the dream and reality of American mythology.

Windblown tumbleweeds just rolled past my stereo system.

But then “Dark Horses” loses the Route 66 roadmap and floats into dreamy pop territory. It is a really nice song, but musically, has little to do with a gun tottin’ land of the free and the home of the brave. “Black Winds” is equally wonderful as it ventures into adventurous pop with a great guitar that punctuates with a pulse as Juanita Stein’s absolutely gorgeous voice floats above the fray.  Again, this is a pretty clever song that is probably the closest track on the album to the original HB sound. But musically, it has little to do with Clint Eastwood riding into dusty Tombstone lookin’ for someone “to make his day.”

 Juanita Stein is Australian. This album is her glance at America. I always enjoy a good record about my country through foreign eyes. The Band were four Canadians and the sainted Levon Helm. They carved a woodcut, both lyrically and musically, of all things wonderful and all things sad in these fifty states of freedom. Their music cut into the deep vein of America’s soul. My friend, Kilda Defnut, claims that second album is the greatest American progressive rock record. Kilda claims it’s our equivalent to Genesis’ masterpiece Foxtrot. She may be right.  And I really love Kasey Chambers, a fantastic Aussie folk singer who has that Appalachian down home American musical recipe that was baked into Bob Dylan’s “Country Pie.” Her album, Rattlin’Bones with her then husband Shane Nickleson is a blissful record. That album reminds me of all the stuff I forgot to notice about my homeland.

Those were my reference points.

But hearing “I’ll Cry,” I realized this is a different, yet equally valid take on pure Americana, a pure Americana old Philco tube radio with Patsy Cline’s voice, like some sort of Bible miracle, singing from the speaker. This is dreamy, soulful, and lovely country. Trust me. The song yearns with purity and soul. And listen to that guitar solo: Even the spaces between the notes manage to shed tears. This isn’t a Tombstone soundtrack or a Kasey Chambers’ Sydney Hillbillies album. It’s not even a Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies record. Those two earlier songs, “Dark Horse” and “Black Winds” suddenly made sense. The same is true for “Stargazer” and “Shimmering.” These songs evoke the 50’s or possibly the early 60’s distant transistor radio innocence before a lot of people got killed in the Viet Nam. We waltzed a lot more way back then. This is folk music about people who once liked to waltz. And it’s not that too distant from a song like “A Ballad for the Bleeding Hearts” on Howling Bells’ debut album.

I think Juanita Stein’s take on my America is unique and as valid as any other Tumbleweed Connection of songs. But this is quite different, and succeeds in its dreamy, poppy, and melodic way. 

“Someone Else’s Dime” ups the ante with a wonderful melody and a tale of a woman who married one of those gamblers in an old black and white movie. America is all about a big gamble. Maybe that’s all we really are. Maybe that’s all we’ll ever be. But, you know, I really love the guitar in the song, so that makes everything all right. “It’s All Wrong” is a return to timeless Patsy Cline territory. This is emotional rollercoaster music with sad moments between the words that are as vast and lonely as the landscape of the Great Plains, or love itself, for that matter. It’s like listening to Patsy Cline sing “Walking After Midnight.” Yeah, America is all about space. And this music is all about space: space between hopes and reality, space between people, space between the sad notes, and the space between happy and broken heartbeats. “Not Paradise” speaks for itself. And Juanita Stein still has an absolutely lovely voice. “Cold Comfort” returns to a vintage county sound with a steel guitar. Just as another reference point: This song sounds like a Richard and Linda Thompson stab at country music in a 70’s recording session. That’s a compliment.

The final song, “America,” bids adieu. This is a slow waltz of a song. This is a song of parting. It’s a song of travel. It’s a song of hope. It’s a song of loss. It’s a lovely slow dance of a song that may well be the tune of life, a life filled with great dreams, and then, equally sad arrivals. The thing about America is, well, we just have a lot of space. And we all need to fill that hole. This nice record manages to fill some of that vast space with a few lovely songs. Old radio did that. And Juanita Stein travels those same ancient frequencies of the heart.

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