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Album Review

When Push
Comes to Shove

“After solid outing with Book, Charlottesville's Mariana Bell avoids sophomore jinx with Push, the article in my head reads, Variety-style headlines in bold black letters screaming “Boffo!” and “It's a Hit!” with the appropriate number of exclamation points following. Lucky for you, it is just in my head because I am sure you have enough trouble reading my contributions without my reverting to 1930s Broadway. Still, that's what I felt when I first heard the album and that's what I feel after a good twenty listens. Push, my Modern Pop friends, is a killer! Track after track, Bell lays out ear-catching melodies as good as any mainstream femme vocalist out there. I have to conclude that I am in love--- with the music if not the girl.

I hesitate to use Modern Pop (with the really good music, I hesitate to label genre because, to me, the good stuff transcends genre) for fear of isolating those who equate it with Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears, but what the hell. Modern Pop it is (well, to me anyway) and I love it. I used to turn the TV up when the ad featuring Perfect Day came on. My guilty pleasures are early Taylor Swift and Michelle Branch (Sshh!) and my not so guilty pleasure is the pop side of Lisa Parade, whose Finding Flora album gets regular rotation on the CD player thanks to a superb mix of trip hop, pop and rock. Give me melody and a hook any day and when you toss in outstanding arrangement and production, stick a fork in me.

You can stick a fork in Push. It's done. Boy, is it done. What I have in my hands is a pre-release CD-R sent to me by Bell, so the attributes are not listed, but these sessions border on epic. We have become inured to the top tier by the major labels, who (according to their PR) pull out all stops to give you the best. Well, this is as good as any major label effort I've heard in the past ten years and maybe longer. Producer? Session men? Mariana herself? When this was recorded, they were all at the top of their game.

Sample it. A Room With No Doors is reminiscent of Carolyn Arends on her earlier albums, the soft vocal intertwining with emotional twilight producing a heart stopper. The light, choogling rhythm of Balloon with its sparse harmonies is maybe not the downer side of Perfect Day, but it comes close. Good Enough isn't country, but it would fit very well indeed between any two “hits” that CMT tosses at its viewers every day. Each and every track, in fact, has its strength, be it musical or lyrical.

The real surprise, though, are the two “clays”: California Clay and Virginia Clay. On these two tracks, Bell steps outside her comfort zone and makes a statement. California Clay is semi-sultry and steamy, perfect for one of those double-entendre videos you see when MTV isn't on the reality kick. What sets it apart? A bit more soul, I suppose. Bell and band sell it effortlessly. Virginia Clay is a beat-heavy companion, the voice and band pushing harder to make the point. What can I say? Point. Match. Set.

I am more than a bit taken aback by this album, truth be told. Bell's first album Book showed potential and I was captivated, but Push overwhelms me. Trust me when I say that it easily fits in to my short list for Album of the Year in spite of the incredibly stiff competition 2011 is putting up. Voice? Check. Production? Check. Arrangements? Check. Songwriting? Double check. Definitely on the short list. This is the kind of an album which gives Mainstream credibility.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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