Album Review: Juanita Stein – America

With a beat and a quiver we are transported to a landscape familiar from Western films. The lyrics bear out the cinematic allusions: “walking for the freedom that you’ll never find/walking for survival.” Just as the scene is set, the twist kicks in. The title character, Florence, isn’t a lonesome badlands wanderer. She’s inextricably bound with others – responsible for them, subservient to them – and caught up in drudgery and poverty. The singer urges perseverance and resolve: “you’re a leader, there’s not many of us born/you’re a lover, fighter, mother, keeper of the dawn.” The shuffling percussion and driving bass echo the themes of strength and survival.

Like in the best Westerns, the instrumentation of Dark Horse stalks the edges like rattlesnakes. Vocally, there’s a languorous quality somewhere between sultry and knowing. A sense of savviness and agency permeates the lyrics too: “you’re a dark horse, baby, I can feel it/you got the right kind of wrong, I see through it.”

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The cinematic soundscape carries through Black Winds with its persistent beat accented by fuzzy guitar riffs. It’s the audio equivalent of a lone hero trudging away, last seen as a silhouette walking towards the sun.

I’ll Cry depicts another kind of lonely. It’s a highlight for its low lights. There’s a sense of resignation cut with equal parts of hope and sadness: “call me any time you’re high or low/call when you miss the way you were/just don’t call when you’re with her.”

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Stargazer feels like a response to Black Winds‘ lonesome wandering: “out in the desert where you roam/the night sky will guide you home.” In both songs, Stein’s vocals reach impossible heights, adding as much to the melody as to the narration.

If Dark House sounds sultry, Shimmering is outright seductive. It’s half-whispered: “you’re demanding/I don’t mind a little heartache/if it means I get to wear that blue dress.” Comparisons with Lana Del Rey are perhaps inevitable, but Stein’s been on the scene as a member of The Howling Bells since long before Lizzie Grant discovered the power of a red dress and an exotic stage name.

Someone Else’s Dime is the earworm of the record but it’s unsettling beneath the catchy chorus, much like the failing marriage it describes: “saw his eyes on your children/saw his heart on your sleeve/will he ever return your dignity?”

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It’s All Wrong is a sweet shuffle symphony but, again, the calm sound belies the break-up it laments. The relationship wasn’t perfect but it was better than loneliness: “you always made me cry/you’d lose your temper telling lies/I miss the little things.” It’s not a clean break, and it’s all the more real for that.

Not Paradise feels like a companion piece in its whispered willingness to love again. It’s not commanding but it’s certain: “I give you my heart/with it all the pain/all the joy.”

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Cold Comfort is completely country – twang, bourbon, loneliness and all. It’s a great lead in to the album’s final track, America. It not only describes a road trip, with an easy cadence reminiscent of the open road, but also it explores America’s landscapes, soundscapes and mindscapes with the vast scope of a great American novel: “I wanna call on the greater good of America.”

When the record is played on repeat, the winding roads of America lead back to the great plains of the arresting opening track. The song and the album explore the meaning of America and Americans from a distance and at the most intimate levels – from widescreen to close-up – revealing dualities, contrasts and balance all wrapped in compelling, confident, sensuous delivery.

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Juanita Stein’s America is out now. She will be in the UK and Ireland in September for a solo tour, then returns in November to support The Killers (seriously!) Visit juanitastein.com for full details. Wondering what she sounds like live? Here’s my review of her recent London show.

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