25 August 2010

CD REVIEW: Steve Morse/Sarah Spencer - Angelfire (2010, The Record Label)

In a career that spans 30 plus years, Steve Morse has never put his name on a cover of a vocal album.

Oh, sure…he plays guitar for Deep Purple, and there’s loads of vocals there. And who can forget his two albums with Kansas (well, a lot of people, sadly…and I mean that, cos there’s some great material on Power and In the Spirit of Things)? But those were Deep Purple and Kansas albums, not Steve Morse albums.

This summer sees the release of Angelfire, a collaboration with the now 22-year old Sarah Spencer, a young lady with an incredibly pure, almost innocent voice. Together she and Morse have laid down 11 tracks of lush, intelligent pop music with aspirations to something more. On Angelfire, Morse and Spencer are joined by a pair of musicians that should be quite familiar to Morse fans and proggers in general. Bassist Dave La Rue has worked with Morse on countless albums through the years. Van Romaine, likewise, has been a long time collaborator with Morse on drums and percussion, and these years of service have allowed these musicians to play varying styles of music with almost telepathic skill. One might be tempted to say that they’re almost under-utilised on this material, but their ability to lay back and play for the songs is in fine form here.

But the spotlight here, really, is on Sarah Spencer. She started music lessons at age 6, was cast for a VH-1 reality program at 14 (which was ultimately cancelled). She met Morse at 16, brought together by her father, who had hoped Morse could offer advice on a career in music. Morse was likewise taken by the clarity and pureness of her voice, and agreed to work with her on a series of demos and writing sessions that would eventually result in Angelfire. Morse compares her voice and his first exposure to it as being like hearing Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Arms of an Angel’ for the first time, and I suppose I can see that. She’s got an amazing delivery, very crisp and clean, and this remains so through the full range of her voice.

Angelfire opens strongly with ‘Far Gone Now,’ a wonderful if melancholy tune with subtle percussion, lyrical guitar playing, and surprisingly deep lyrics. I almost feel bad saying that, because there’s nothing anywhere saying a 20-year old can’t feel things as deeply and keenly as someone twice their age. But that still doesn’t mean that I can’t be affected by lines like:

Now there’s a change I see
Love has no room for me
There was a chance to be
But it’s far gone now

Now I can clearly see
There is no love for me
There is a history
But it’s far gone now.

It’s a shame that I knew those words far too well in the past.

Spencer’s voice is double tracked through the bridges, and her harmonies are exquisite and beautiful. Morse plays mostly acoustic guitar throughout, tho he does let loose with a tasteful (and tasty) electric solo on the ride out. I wish he’d done more of this, as it would have contrasted nicely from time to time, but I understand this is more of a collaborative album than a Morse solo showcase.

I’m not as enamoured of her attempts at a bluesier voice on ‘Get Away,’ even though I love her singing on the choruses, and absolutely am hooked by the rest of the ensemble playing. I’d rather hear Spencer singing in her clear, crystal-like soprano, than attempting the blues-based melisma that seems so en vogue for younger singers these days. Thankfully this is the only track she uses this style on, and I’ll excuse it (as if I had a choice, right?).

Having said that, I will say that my absolute, bar none, stone cold favourite track here is ‘Omnis Morse Aequat,’ three and a half minutes of neoclassical material with almost sacred leanings. The music for this piece is subtle and almost baroque, and the layers upon layers of Spencer vocals are so lush that they become almost orchestral. I could listen to this song for hours…and I’m sure there have been some nights I have…listening as I fall asleep, only to wake up the next morning with the same song playing. And if that sounds like I’m saying the song’s boring and somnolent, then I’ve failed in describing it. It is peaceful, beautiful, and a definite highlight for Angelfire.

I should also call out ‘Terrible Thing to Lose,’ a dreamy little number with some nice chorused electric from Morse as well as a great acoustic solo, and ‘Take It Or Leave It,’ which almost aspires to stadium rock pomp. I actually rather wish they’d gone for it; while the song might not have fit in with the rest of the album, the chorus screams for that kind of pomp and bombast.

I have to be honest here…it’s likely I’d never have listened to this album had Steve Morse not been on it. It’s not the kind of thing I’d typically be reviewing here. And more’s the pity for me, because I would have missed out on something very special. Put your prejudices against major key signatures, straight time and more traditional song-based structures aside and listen…I think you’ll probably find the same kind of beauty I did the first time I put Angelfire in my CD player. A complete surprise, this record, and a welcome one indeed.

Track Listing:
1. Far Gone Now (3:50)
2. Everything to Live For (4:30)
3. Feelings Are Overrated (3:39)
4. What Made You Think? (2:57)
5. Here Today (3:55)
6. Get Away (4:25)
7. Pleasant Surprise (3:48)
8. Terrible Thing to Lose (4:18)
9. Omnis Morse Aequat (3:36)
10. Take It or Leave It (3:57)
11. Urban Decay (4:18)

Steve Morse: acoustic and electric guitars
Sarah Spencer: vocals
Van Romaine: drums, percussion
Dave La Rue: bass guitars

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Anonymous said...

Nice lyrics here ...
I've seen Dave La Rue before with Steve Morse or maybe some other trio, at Gilly's in Dayton, OH, and he was great!
He was also friendly as he sat in with the audience after the show.
I asked him what kind of beautiful bass he was playing and he said it was a "Signature" bass.
And he cooked on it, too!
Stu Hamn (sp.?) is another great bassist I've seen with Joe Satriano I think he was with - in Dayton!.
Also at Gilly's I've seen: Billy Cobbham, Al DiMeola and Chick Corea - some great bands have been to Dayton, but it was years ago!
Uriah Heep played here, too, Asia, etc. Steve Morse started his show with a seminar/clinic on guitar.

Zuzanna, Poland said...

Oh my God, this album is E X Q U I S I T E. I'm so glad that Steve agreed to record this kind of music. He is so sensitive he can recognise what's worth working on, no matter what style it represents. Thank you, Steve, thank you, Sarah.

This album is like Tori Amos "Scarlet's Walk" - nostalgic, intriguing. It's a journey into a world full of nuance and shades. And, what has to be stressed, both lyrics (!) and sounds are incredible. Very rare feature.

Just listen.