Stephen Steinbrink - Utopia Teased - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Stephen Steinbrink - Utopia Teased

by Howard Scott Rating:8 Release Date:2018-11-09
Stephen Steinbrink - Utopia Teased
Stephen Steinbrink - Utopia Teased

Most songwriters never know for sure why or how their muse comes into play. Sometimes it can be as simple as dreams, sometimes it’s personal joy or trauma, and sometimes it can be just life in general. For Oakland, California based singer-songwriter, Stephen Steinbrink, it was a culmination of the 2016 US election and the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in his neighborhood that turned on the writing mechanism in his brain. The result of the angst and grief Steinbrink absorbed from both is “Utopia Teased. 

The album, which took almost a year to record, came together when Steinbrink embarked on a mission to try and exorcise his demons through his music. He instituted a daily LSD regimen, basically took up residence in his shipping container studio, and went at the project as a man possessed, sometimes not sleeping for days at a time. (As a personal side note, I am amazed these days how artists can produce a professional and polished recording with access to nothing but a small space and a power strip. Albums are produced from garages, dorm rooms, or even a shipping container. I think if “Abbey Road” was being recorded today, it could just as easily have been called “Ringo’s Broom Closet” or “George’s Garden Shed”.)

Considering the purpose and inspiration for the recording, it would be easy to expect numerous cuts of dreary, depressing music attached to woe-is-me lyrics. While the lyrical content here isn’t always the most joyous, the music certainly is. Nearly every cut has a cheery, upbeat sound that instills hope from what seemed like a hopeless situation for the writer.

Just such a tune opens “Utopia Teased”. “Bad Love” is a pleasant little tune with a steady beat and lots of electronics backing up Steinbrink’s one-of-a-kind voice. As the title would suggest, the topic of the song isn’t as happy as the music sounds, but the combination seems to work well.

“I Wanna Be Free” is a bit more to the point. Ascending keyboard scales accompany a tale of a less than perfect relationship. Again, Steinbrink seems to be capable of telling a significant other goodbye with the happiest sounding soundtrack possible. This song, especially, could have had a darker, moody ambience, but instead seems to rejoice in the upcoming change of situation.

A funky backtrack combines with droning synth work on “A Part of Me is a Part of You” to create one of the most musically adventurous offerings on the disc. Syncopated drum sounds make the tune skip and leap around the vocal to enhance the overall feel. This one shows the songwriting talent the author possesses.

Steinbrink, or possibly a familiar person he is bringing to life in “Empty Vessel”,  seems to live in an existence of stark simplicity. The picking of locks, alarm clocks and tokens for shower stalls all paint a picture somewhat bleak and desperate, but the musical composition does just the opposite. The song construction adds color and brilliance to what otherwise would be a sepia-toned existence. The hope is in the music.

A book by Meagan Day entitled “Maximum Sunlight” is the inspiration for a song of the same name. The book documents the citizens of the small town of Tonopah, Nevada, and Steinbrink enlists a strong rhythm background and lovely acoustic picking to paint a picture of arid desert life. Without ever using a proper name, he describes characters and situations with a clarity we can all understand. We hear about counter eaters, three-wheeled enthusiasts and drained-pool sleepers without a hint of judgement or prejudice.

“Zappa Dreams” is easily the most complex tune on the recording, and also a personal favorite. This is the only song here not written by Steinbrink, as Rosie Steffy created the original.  It begins as a folk-sounding acoustic waltz backing a lyric describing a dream of flying like a bird and being shot down by a lost love. The song then launches into a full out rock attack that is distortion driven and almost alarming, considering everything else on the recording. Before pure panic sets in, however, the tune snaps back into the prior waltz and closes out. The waltz-rock-waltz amalgamation is pure fun, again belying the vocal which describes less-than-perfect situations.

The album contains two instrumentals. “Coming Down” is 76 seconds of electronica set to a slow, steady pulse that seems to imitate the pealing of church bells. “Become Sphere” combines guitar stylings with the synth-pop background to create a pleasing intermission for the listener.

Melina Duterte (Jay Som) shines as guest vocalist on “Mom”, which is probably the most personal lyric offered on a recording full of personal writings. Singing of sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot while taking in the local AM radio station, Steinbrink creates a documentary of tough times and tough relationships. Again, the melody has a joyous lilt reminiscent of Lennon-McCartney’s “Two of Us”.

“In Another Kind of Dream” is about as schizophrenic a song as one can find. After a couple seconds of tape loops and sound effects, the song morphs into a masterpiece of guitar and keyboard work that is easily radio ready. That lasts for about three minutes, but then the song closes out with a reading from a diary by artist Paul Thek. While I realize we are dealing with dreams here, the song is absolutely heavenly without the rather strange ending.

The pattern of the first-class melody combined with soul-searching lyrics continues on “You Could Always Leave” before the recording closes out with “I’m Never Changing Who You Are”. This one tells a story of lost adolescence and the disappointments that family can create. “Will you try to love more than you did?” cries Steinbrink, while realizing that his question will remain unanswered. The anthem features a fine acoustic guitar lead again backed by synths and drum machine pounding. The backward tape loops and sound effects close everything out, complete with a distinct piano note played over sirens, barking dogs, and shadowy footsteps.

“Utopia Teased” is written, produced, performed and engineered by Steinbrink, and is an interesting listen. It obviously was intended to be cathartic for its creator, but it gives us all a chance to recover from the daily world for an hour or so. The music is otherworldly, the lyrics poignant and intelligent and the experience enriching.

While deep sorrow and grief can never really be completely expunged, Steinbrink has given us a work that allows us to believe that we can go on, maybe somewhat more somber, but also resolutely stronger.

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