[Album Review] Elizabeth Shepherd- The Signal
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by Mark Anthony Brennan
elizabethshepherd

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Release Date: September 30th, 2014
Label: True North Records/Pinwheel Music

The word “stunning” is probably overused. Reviewers often dish out the term when all they really mean is that the music is very good or that it’s the best thing they have heard all week. But it should only be used when you hear something that literally makes you stop in your tracks and go, “wow”. Like, you’re stunned. OK? ‘The Signal’ by Elizabeth Shepherd is stunning.

The album works wonders on several levels, but let’s start with the music (naturally). Jazz may be Shepherd’s primary language, but it is more accurate to say that this is sophisticated, contemporary music that is accessible to virtually everyone and the styles that it draws upon include jazz, soul, folk, world music and even a smattering of urban. Take the song “On Our Way”, for example. It starts off with Shepherd humming in self-harmony, sounding more like the beginning of an indie folk number than anything else. Then the cool sounds of an electric piano blend in before the song finally settles into a modern groove with funk undertones. Throughout the album Shepherd throws in Asian beats (“I Gave”), steel drums (“B.T. Cotton”), studio effects (“Lion’s Den”) and recorded samples (“Another Day”). The opener “Willow” is a real standout, with its complex instrumentation, infectious rhythm and West African guitar (courtesy of Lionel Loueke, who also provides some vocals in the outro). That may all sound pretty eclectic, but Shepherd’s self-assurance provides an overall cohesion.

Another impressive dimension here is Shepherd’s lyrics. On ‘The Signal’ she boldly addresses topics such as feminism, Monsanto’s global practices and racial tensions in today’s cities, and she does so with literary style. In “I Gave” Shepherd broaches the weighty topic of how Mother Teresa lost her faith in God:

“Once called by faith but now a daily fall so far from His grace

‘My Father,’ she calls ‘why this darkness?’ – but silence awaits”

Finally, the one element that anchors the entire effort is Shepherd’s own performance, as both a singer and keyboardist. Her signature electric piano snakes its way through the record in its many guises – from urbane chillwave to dance-floor electro and to Stevie Wonder-style funk. Stylistically her vocal delivery falls somewhere between the cocktail jazz of Diana Krall and the more soul-infused tones of Sade, but with her friendly, unpretentious touch Shepherd comes off sounding more like Suzanne Vega.

Yes, this album is stunning. It is unique (another overused term) in that it is both musically and lyrically literate, but at the same time has enough contemporary hooks to be widely accessible. Really, what’s not to like?