If you want to make a sonically distinctive, dramatic and high-impact record (and who doesn’t?), you can do worse than running the circuit that begins at Marcata Studio, Kevin McMahon’s rustic chapel of beauty and distress in New Paltz, and that ends with the exacting ears of Jamal Ruhe, one of the busiest mastering engineers at Alan Douches’ West West Side Music mastering facility in New Windsor (where the client list includes last names like Townshend and first names like Sufjan).
The restless, prolific and super-accomplished indie rock singer/songwriter Laura Stevenson availed herself of this oft-coupled team for her first true solo record, Wheel (2013, Don Giovanni Records), and the results are, to my ears, a career landmark for Stevenson. It is an album of incredible depth and range and sudden, volatile dynamics: truly one of McMahon’s calling cards as a producer, but also present in all of Stevenson’s previous work, so the pairing was a natural.
The Long Island native’s debut full-length with her band the Cans, 2010’s A Record,starts – as does Wheel – by positioning Stevenson seemingly in the center of the faux-Appalachian Baroque/folk revival, but it is an absolute red herring in both cases, exposed by the crushing, serrated guitar rock that swiftly follows. The second record by the Cans, Sit Resist (which, surprisingly, is not a palindrome) finalizes the move to full-band indie rock and foreshadows more of the Xtreme dynamic character of Wheel, even though some of Sit Resist’s finest moments are modest, one-gear plain pop gems like the wildly popular tune “Master of Art.”
Beyond the smart, surreal and emotionally articulate lyrics, the inventive and impassioned guitar-playing and the immersive sonics of each track, the trip about Laura Stevenson is her voice: Small and even a little pointy in basic character, it surprises continuously with its pinpoint detail and control, its melismatic acrobatics and its ability to elevate to the realm of the epic without much warning. Wheel exploits this for all it’s worth on such swelling, long-arc, dynamic narratives as “L Dopa” and “Telluride” (which manages to feel as epic as a ten-minute Crazy Horse jam in a mere three minutes and 33 seconds).
Wheel reallyis majestic stuff, the sound of Stevenson pushing her formidable talent to what may or may not be its outer limits, helped along by McMahon’s legendary flair for sullied beauty. It’s a fully realized masterwork of luminous, ambitious and stormy Americana rock that just schools most anything else that I can think of meeting that description. I can’t wait to hear Stevenson and her touring band – which includes the badass Hudson Valley drummer and multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Sammi Niss (Battle Ave., Hiding behind Sound, the Pelican Movement) – at BSP on Friday, September 5. Tickets cost $10 in advance, $12 the day of the show, and are available at Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Outdated in Kingston, Darkside Records in Poughkeepsie and the Woodstock Music Shop.
Output Agency presents Laura Stevenson with the Hotelier and Time Travels, Friday, September 5, 9 p.m., $12/$10, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston, https://www.bspkingston.com.