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Album Review

Becca Stevens has truly cultivated — so early in her recording career; this is only her second album — a sound one wants to savor again and again. Finding a sweet spot where jazz phrasing and improvisation meet classic acoustic folk harmonic structure and indie rock panache, Stevens slots neatly into no single category. But her appeal goes beyond her evasion of easy pigeonholing: This is a vocalist and bandleader with command to spare, a flair for making savvy, split-second decisions, pulling tricky changes out of the air, and crafting arrangements that appear simple on the surface but reveal true sophistication with each successive listen. None of this would matter much if the voice wasn't a keeper, and Stevens' is. She's got a light, airy but assured touch and tends to stay in her upper register, but she's supple and authoritative, and the occasional measured swoop in another direction adds further dynamism and depth. Her delivery is expressive but she never succumbs to the faux over-emotionalism that mars so many contemporary vocalists. And her songwriting is estimable: it's often quirky and opaque, at times deceptively minimal, never less than captivating. On originals such as the rhythmically restless "Canyon Dust," she'll have you wondering just what she means by "Your selfish choice to leave three hatching eggs has made a canyon in our chests," yet she's so unself-conscious when she sings those words that the urge to question or analyze never materializes. On the title track, which flits and flutters till it indeed feels airborne, she wastes no time, swiftly engaging her audience: when she sings "There's nothing like witnessing the moment that a life lets loose and falls to the ground" — and it doesn't feel dark — she's got your attention; she'll keep you riveted till she's done with you. In addition to her original material, Stevens does wonders with songs borrowed from sources as diverse as Seal ("Kiss from a Rose ), the Smiths ("There Is a Light That Never Goes Out"), Animal Collective, and Iron & Wine. All of this homey, soulful music is performed largely on acoustic instruments: Stevens plays guitar and ukulele, and Liam Robinson's accordion, harmonium, and piano flesh out the melodies beautifully. Chris Tordini on bass and Jordan Perlson on drums and percussion take Stevens' melodies to unexpected places, whether building to crescendos or laying down a polyrhythmic undercoat. Larry Campbell guests on guitar and cittern on a few tracks, and Gretchen Parlato lends a vocal to Stevens' composition "No More." If there's one misfire, it's the overreliance on harmony vocals from Robinson and Tordini. There's nothing wrong with their singing per sé, and in many spots, the three-part vocalizing, particularly when they sing counterpoint, is delicious. There's simply too much of it: while the album is credited to the Becca Stevens Band and not just Stevens, there are times when her lone voice would be more effective than the Peter, Paul and Mary route. But that's a minor quibble. Weightless is a gem, and it'll be exciting to see where this artist goes from here.

Weightless, Becca Stevens Band
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