2.5 stars out of 5
Aaron, the lonesomest of those of us populating The Lonesome Road Review, sent me an email asking if I would be interested in reviewing an album from a singer I’ve never heard of, Jennie Arnau. Being the amiable sort, I agreed and then got this idea: since I have no idea who Jennie Arnau is, why don’t I keep it that way and simply write about the tracks as I open them from my e-mail? No liner notes, no Googling, no one-sheet; stream of consciousness-like, as it were.
A fine exercise, methinks. Let’s see where it goes.
First problem, Track 1 isn’t attached. Off to eMusic (nope) and iTunes—there it is, an April 2010 release. I now know the album is called Chasing Giants and—dang it—I couldn’t help but notice that this is Arnau’s fifth album and she is from South Carolina. Eyes averted to prevent me from learning any more, I download the missing track.
And we start listening:
“For the Winter” “She glows in the sun” are the first words heard and the pictures start forming. Captures emotions of childhood—as a kid, filling your days of warmth and adventure without thinking about the coming of winter; the immediacy of youth. A repetitive banjo-run punctuates things, giving a light summer feel. Arnau’s voice is pleasant, but not terribly distinctive so far. More interesting is the male voice providing intermittent punctuation. I like the line “There’s nothing more fun than playing on newly bare blacktop.” A hopeful start.
“The Sparrow & The Gods” Some percussion kicks off this one. A mid-’70s feel; a little Carly Simon here. Immediately apparent is that Arnau is singing with more verve, a different type of intensity, on this number than on the more airy initial track. Again, it ends before I get interested. Not a good omen, I’m afraid. Hopefully, things improve.
“Bouncing Ball” The banjo is back, giving some life to this song. Arnau’s voice and material aren’t grabbing me, although her voice has appeal. I can understand why some listeners would like it; it just isn’t doing anything for me. A lovelorn number, she’s waiting for things to turn around for her. I wonder, Why doesn’t she fling the door open and go after the object of her affection? This album, so far, is sounding like it would fit comfortably within a Signature Sounds sampler from ’95.
“Safe Tonight” Mournful, this one; appeals to my gloomy side. “It is always darkest before the night.” Good line. Fiddle helps shape this one’s mood. Even with these elements appealing to me, I’m having to force myself to remain engaged. Arnau reminds me a bit of Serena Ryder and Patty Griffin, other singers I wish I could enjoy on recordings more than I do.
“Beautiful Life” An affirming number, she’s finally showing some life. A bit retro, again, but it works a little better here. Banjo returns. Nice tempo and mood change-up mid-song. Contains a few potential diva moments, I can hear Wynonna singing this one, although it would benefit from a bit more blues growl. So far, the only song that matches the lead-in.
“Jack B Nimble” I don’t like hearing the slide making additional noises on the strings of a guitar. I wish they could somehow get those out of the picture. Very distracting, so much so that the song is almost two-minutes in before I’m really able to listen. Let’s start over. Another song of the past, perhaps reflections of someone’s childhood. The guitar playing on this track is much more appealing when that noise isn’t present. At the 2:43 mark there is a nice guitar fill, just a couple seconds, that captures my attention. And then the slide, or whatever makes that squeak, is back. Urgh!
“Savior” An interesting beginning to this one, voice with minimal (maybe) steel accompaniment. Arnau’s voice has range, and she can roar in that modern country, female vocalist way quite well. She uses that range on this one, going from soft gentleness to affirmative aggression, but not too aggressive; she pulls back before things drift into Sheryl Crow territory. Other than the line, “You are my savior,” nothing sticks from this track.
“Chasing Giants” I’m in trouble. I don’t very often write negatively. I take no pleasure in doing so, and would rather ignore an album that doesn’t appeal to me or possesses few redemptive elements. What am I missing on Chasing Giants? Arnau’s voice is nice. But that isn’t an attribute, is it? The songs are regrettably forgettable.
This music must appeal to someone—this is album five, and you don’t make that many albums without a fan base—but I’m not hearing what makes her special. At the mid-point of this title track, she sings: “I’m looking for a way out, just trying to find my way back home…’cause I don’t think that I can take the chance on my own.” Whatever the exact words, they capture my mood; I’m regretting taking this stylistic leap. I wish I could hear something to set Arnau apart from the pack. But, unlike singers who can sing this type of introspective material—Mary Chapin Carpenter, Carrie Newcomer, to name just two—Arnau falls short.
“No Guarantees” Sometimes song titles say it all. I guess that is the lesson I’m going to take from this album and experience. I like the idea of jumping into things without knowing how they’ll turn out, but I’m getting schooled here; it isn’t how I best operate. I’ve finally found the comparison that has been eluding me for several songs: Beth Nielsen Chapman. Others sing her praises, and Nanci Griffith even sings that she wishes she had a voice like BNC. The appeal is lost to me, and I think Jennie Arnau is going to remain that way to me.
“The Sharp Things” No, I won’t go there. This song drifts along like the several that preceded it. The substance continues to elude me. I predicted the power chord that cuts in at the two-minute mark. I shouldn’t be able to do that, should I? And I wasn’t surprised by the vocal exclamation made 25 seconds later.
I hate sharing my thoughts in this manner, but in this case it is probably the most honest way to. Is it fair to me to reduce the work, the art, of someone to a single 40-minute ramble? Likely not, but I’m confident I could listen to this album three more times and not change a meaningful word. I can’t anticipate my feelings changing; in another format, I would simply fill any rewritten review with biographical and recording background that would conceal my unfavorable opinion behind tricks writers use when considering something that is unsatisfying.
Entering the editing and revising stage…and listening again while I do.
I’m only changing the occasional verb and eliminating repetitive thoughts. I’m disappointed in this album, and I had no reason to anticipate anything of it. How can that be? I wanted to like it, if only because of the pleasure I get from enjoying new music and turning others onto it.
Unleash the slings and arrows…
by Donald Teplyske