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Right On Time

A year or so ago, an album by Fiery Blue hit the Internet, a collaborative effort of a songwriter (Paul Marsteller), a producer and multi-instrumentalist () and a vocalist (Simone Elyse Stevens). At first listen, it seemed a pretty fair offering of pop tunes, but nothing mind-blowing. There was a story behind it, though, and if I am a sucker for anything, it is a backstory. Turns out the three found one another on the Internet or at the very least used the Net as a way of joining forces. The result thus far has been two well-received albums of what I would call pop tunes (read my rather exuberant review of the first album here) and a solid future, should they continue to record together. That initial conclusion? Disregard.

Because the lines are pretty well drawn in Fiery Blue (Marsteller is the songwriter, so far; Rhodes is the band, with the exception of some acoustic guitar from Marsteller; and Stevens is the vocalist), I was surprised when I found that Stevens had been working on her own album in New York City (Marsteller lives in San Diego, Rhodes in Austin). There were no indicators--- nothing that hints that each person wanted to be more than they are. But here it is--- Right On Time--- the first Simone Stevens album, and it is a beaut.

I pride myself on giving each album I choose to review (and make no mistake, I chose to review this) a minimum of ten listens all the way through with extra attention paid to highlights. I am thrilled to say that I didn't need them. Oh, I've listened to it ten times at the very least, but I knew right from the start this was solid. I had already fallen in love with the voice through my hundred-plus playings of Fiery Blue's albums. Well, Right On Time proves that Stevens is much more than a voice.

She can write. She is in the same league as Marsteller who is penning outstanding songs for Fiery Blue. She has that same touch, a certain sensibility towards the melody which all writers of pop songs need. And as all good writers, she embraces the melody just outside the formula. Throughout the album, she steps to the right or left of the standard and makes a good song better with the slightest of moves: an alternate rhythm, a line moving downscale instead of upscale, a chorus which does not fit with the verse but which really does. When you hear it once, you're surprised. After a few times, though, you come to expect it. It gets under your skin.

The biggest example is my favorite song on the album, Below Zero, which begins vaguely like a song I've heard too many times before until it is taken on a beauteous ride in the chorus and given a long and superbly arranged ending reminiscent of that fifties and sixties feel I mentioned earlier. I remember that feel, those production values, on songs like Gogi Grant's The Wayward Wind and Timi Yuro's Hurt (better known to many as The Big Hurt). And before you go all crazy on me after sampling this album, I am not saying Stevens writes or sings in a fifties or sixties style. I'm just saying that the production touches upon that era. I mean, I loved that sound. I loved the bigness of it. In places, Stevens nails it.

Of course, Below Zero is hardly the only song of note here. The album is packed with them. The folk-poppish Sail Away, beautifully arranged in the fifties/sixties style I mentioned (with superb background vocals, I might add, and carried further along by fitting sax solo); the free-flowing and catchy ABC; Just Because, which sounds as if it came right out of the early sixties; and the eerie and folkish Pigeon Bird.

Then there is Free which clocks in at 1:51 but could go 10:51 without me blinking an eye. It is a short bit of folk/pop/psyche with a fitting squeaky clarinet part which makes the song. It is an anomaly, true, but slipped between the heart-stopping love ballad Right In Time and Below Zero, it is as if they are three parts of the same movement.

I can only think of two other recent releases which approach Right On Time in quality and sound and fifties'/sixties' pop feel: Shade's Highway and Mariana Bell's Push, both at the top of my list of albums people need to hear. I'm adding this. I love this album. To quote Hymn For Her on their song, Drive, “It's a killer”.

Available from CDBaby.

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