To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve always preferred the music of female folk and alt-country artists to that of their numerous male counterparts. Maybe it’s because I prefer dusky alto croons to plaintive tenor coos. Maybe it’s because I’m always glad to see more women involved in the music industry. Maybe it’s because I’m a closet chauvinist who’s always been enamored with the female form and feels that women as artists can strike an especially powerful image. Whatever – let’s just say that I want to see more female musicians succeed in the music world.
So, I was pleased to receive the debut full-length from Ariel Lask to review on this site, and it happily struck several familiar chords, and did so with soul. Great Escape calls to mind a healthy batch of great voices – the great triumvirate of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Gillian Welch come immediately to mind – but I was also pleased to hear poppier influences like Sheryl Crow, Amy Grant, Colbie Caillat, and Sara Bareilles rear their head every once in awhile. More importantly, the record doesn’t stray very far from comfortable, timeworn lyrical ideas like dealing with loss and pain, exploring one’s soul, and standing resolute in the face of trials and tribulations.
Such thoughts only enhance the strong musical components at play. First and foremost is Lask’s voice – it’s a robust alto with some excellent smoky qualities, good range when needed, and the occasional off-kilter slide in tone for emotional effect. The backing band realizes this, as no one player seeks to take over the mix, and no one ever attempts to wrest control from the singer. The guitars are clean and ever so country-fied, while the rhythm section is straight-out-of-Nashville solid, and I always love to hear a good organ player fill out the sound. When the band is capable and confident, even the oldest chord progressions sound effortless and interesting.
The record reach a rather tepid point on cuts like “Bluebird,” “All I Could Do,” and “Stranger” when rather boring radio pop concepts overwhelm good pop theories. Also, while the project as a whole could serve as a reverent homage to the women who have paved the way for ladies like Lask, Shelley Coley, and Raina Rose, it also showcases an artist who’s still trying to find her own voice and personality. The songs are good, and the arrangements are pleasant and catchy, but they’re also a bit formulaic and in need of some tweaking in terms of the formatting.
Yet, as heard on selections like “Dirt’s On Fire,” “Don’t You Know,” and “Mirrors,” the real strength of Great Escape is that Ariel Lask has learned the lessons of her forebears – the power inherent in this genre rests in the heartfelt, sincere presentation of the material. There’s no need for pomp, circumstance and bombast in the worlds of alt-country and folk-pop; if people believe that you believe in what you’re singing, then you’ve captured people’s attention, even nerdy music critics like myself who typically listen to indie-pop, punk, hip-hop, and weird electronic stuff. And maybe that’s why I prefer the feminine side of the genre – I believe these women, with their tales of woe and heartache – whereas too many guys sound like they’re content telling someone else’s story.