Stefanie Robbins, Welcome Her Back
CD Release Show, Sun. Sept. 18, 2016
The Royal Room, 5000 Rainier Ave. S
Album review by Hank Davis (full text; return to Reviews page)
I've traded notes on songwriting with Seattle singer-songwriter Stefanie Robbins at the Beacon Hill Songwriters' Circle, so she invited me to her CD release concert and asked me to write a review of Welcome Her Back. Her new album is quite the professional production. She likes a touch of sentimental country slide behind her big voice and effective chord changes, and the polished band obliges. You can hear bits of Carole King, Stevie Nicks, and Dolly Parton in Stef's songwriting and Eric Miller's arrangements.
But what about Stef's lyrics? Does the music of her songs support what she is saying? Felling a bit churlish for asking such a pointed question (do mine?), I texted a Dylan line to my brother Frank back in Willoughby, Ohio:
Why should I presume to pull her down into the same hole I'm in?
When Stef is anthemic she can sound defiant, as when she celebrates a wilder "her" tucked inside herself in the title song "Welcome Her Back":
I told myself a million lies, broke some rules to make it right, hid from her song.
Did some dreaming to survive, pushed the edge to feel alive, she’d never gone.
Now I won’t silence, I won’t shame, hear her voice, know her name, she will always have a place.
Cut the vines and let her breathe, growing taller than the trees,
Till once again her head’s in the clouds.
Other times she's rhapsodic. I'm guessing that Eric Miller's detailed arrangements bring out her grander side, as in the gorgeous overdubbed outro at the end of "Carried Away," where multiple Stefanies emulate the effect of letting herself tumble in and out of love:
Carried away, carried away again, carried away…
carried away to yesterday and what might have been….
(what might have been; carried away, carried away…)
I'm not sure, however, that Eric's efforts can find much new in "Let My Cards Show" (an image trademarked by Kenny Rogers), or sort out the planetary metaphor of "Constant One":
You’re my gravity Keep me planted on the ground
and steady as the sun, You’re my constant one
(It's hard to improve upon John Donne imagining his spouse the "fixed foot" of a compass that "makes me end where I begun.")
Stefanie is happily married now, and clearly loves her husband and children. The fetching sing-along nursery rhyme "The Sycamore Tree" was written for them:
Little robin come home, to the Sycamore Tree
I will make you a nest, of small twigs and leaves
When you come home, to the family tree
Come on home, to the Sycamore Tree
But she hints at the rougher life that the "her" inside her remembers when she writes in "Saltwater" of a runaway girl getting lost:
born with saltwater in my bones
with the sun, the moon and the sea
The wind in my thick tangled hair
the soles of my feet on the blistering sand...
I have always been better at getting lost
I have never been easily found
That's when she sounds more personal and reflective. The 'public' Stef in "1000 Ways" can seem a bit hectoring, as in this stanza:
We stay small minded, and we’ve decided
we both have something to prove
So full of talk and fear, look how we’re walking here
Alone or following the crowd?
She's not really addressing the guy here but rather complaining to us, her audience as jury, about who she and he become around each other. By contrast, in "Already Gone" amid more conventional lines, she tells him this directly:
I know what you’re thinking, maybe come tomorrow I will change my mind
Looking for an angle, maybe you can wrangle just a little more time
That is spoken right to him and rings true as a realization arriving in context, during the heated late stages of a breakup. Anyone who has been through such a confrontation will recognize the feeling. Time to go. Eventually you can laugh about it, but that takes awhile. Years, sometimes. There is a chorus in "Sedona," my favorite song on the album, in which Stefanie asks a whole bunch of questions all at once:
And I wonder if you’re clean, and I wonder if you pray.
And if people ask you questions, I wonder what you say.
Do you have something to wear, do you have enough to eat?
And would I recognize you after three years on the street?
I'm drawn to her nervous energy here, how these lines reproduce Stef trying to push questions out of her mouth as fast as she can while young Sedona is still there to hear them. Sedona is struggling to fend off a hard loneliness that Stef recognizes. Perhaps she remembers perfectly well her own impatience with such nosy questions just a few years back while she was on the street. Yet now she's in the position of asking Sedona those very same questions because she cares about her, worries that she will be hurt or disappear. Were it my place, I might give Stef a gentle nudge toward songs where the young mother in her confronts someone face to face, be it a pleading guy or a lost girl. In such songs I hear Stef's own voice, not addressing the cosmos or a jury but speaking to a single person whose troubled mind grieves her.
In the mid-1950s, the poet Robert Creeley wrote a short poem called "The Whip" about a romantic triangle he got caught up in that ended badly. Trying to explain his elliptical technique in this piece, Creeley refers to the deliberate silences of a great sax player: "...I used to listen to [Charlie] Parker's endless variations on "I Got Rhythm."...What fascinated me was that he'd write silences as actively as sounds, which of course they were. Just so in poetry.
And in songwriting as well, the more intimately the song yields to the complex gestures of the singer's spoken voice. That's what Joni Mitchell was doing when she began a song with the spoken phrase "No regrets, Coyote" ― turning that sassy line into a moment of theater. I hope that Stef will continue to feel comfortable writing songs in her own personal voice, and peppering them to taste with remarks directed at particular people.
The night of her CD release show, I asked Stef "Where are we welcoming you back from?" and she answered "Myself." That's an intriguing answer. This is a fine album. It can be purchased on Stefanie's website (www.stefanierobbins.com).
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