Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Long Awaited, Long Delayed, Sophie B. Hawkins Returns With The Crossing!

The Good: Some wonderful lyrics, Moments of voice, Duration, Musical mix
The Bad: Vocal straining gets old, Somewhat mediocre bonus tracks.
The Basics: With The Crossing, Sophie B. Hawkins returns to remind listeners she still has something vital to say, even if it is tough for her to articulate it.

It has been almost a decade since Sophie B. Hawkins released a full album of new material. Fans might have been reeling from Wilderness, but it was not so bad as to bench talent for ten years . . . especially ten years that saw the rise of Katy Perry and Rihanna. So, The Crossing was highly anticipated by those who like decent music, great lyrics and have taste. Fortunately, Sophie B. Hawkins returns boldly with a variety she has not committed to since Timbre and creates a memorable album that might take a listen or two to fully appreciate.

Sophie B. Hawkins has a habit of not doing anything half-assed (and yes, I am omitting the many compilation albums that have hit the market that essentially exploit Tongues & Tails and Whaler from that praise) and on The Crossing one can almost hear the strain she is under to create something unabashedly great. While she frequently creates an album that is deeply personal with enough universal qualities to allow those who have not suffered as much as she did as a child to relate, she nevertheless tries too hard on too many of the tracks, at least vocally. Hawkins has a way of straining her voice in a way that makes it undeniable that she is actually singing (a technique she presented on her very first single, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover”). But the novelty of that “strained voice” techniques wears thin when she does it on so many tracks and that is the key fault on The Crossing.

With seventeen tracks occupying almost sixty-nine minutes, The Crossing may well be one of the best musical values of the year. With all songs written or co-written (with Mary Steenbergen of all people!) by Sophie B. Hawkins, save “Sinnerman,” The Crossing is very much the musical vision of Sophie B. Hawkins. Hawkins provides all of the lead vocals. She also plays piano, percussion, drums and strings on the album and is credited as the producer and engineer of all but the single remix of “Betchya Got A Cure For Me.” In other words, this album is very much the musical vision and skill of Sophie B. Hawkins.

Vocally, that means listeners are (mostly) treated to an artist who has the ability to change registers with an incredible speed. She stays entirely in the alto range on songs like “Life Is A River” and while the soprano presentations certainly dominate “Heart & Soul Of A Woman,” she goes much deeper and lower in some moments that give the track an epic quality. Unfortunately, The Crossing is plagued by too many instances where Hawkins holds high notes too long, purposely letting her voice crack and get scratchy. Even the final vocals in “Heart & Soul Of A Woman” sound tired and injured. While that is an interesting effect for some moments, it wears thin the more it is used on one album and The Crossing dips into the “strained sound” just a little too often. “Miles Away” and “I Don’t Need You” back to back, for example, illustrate this well.

On the instrumental accompaniment end, The Crossing is a predictably (for those who know the works of Sophie B. Hawkins) diverse album that is not a simple pop presentation. In fact, with The Crossing, Hawkins pretty much buries any past she might have had that relied on synths, production elements and anything that tried to stick with one genre. The Crossing might best be classified as vocally-driven rock. Indeed, songs like “Gone Baby” are so vocally-driven that one has to really listen for the piano and drums that accompany Hawkins. Most of the songs have a ballad-like quality to them, but the album still is aurally interesting.

Lyrically, The Crossing is a melodic mix of travel and love poetry and explorations of loss and pain. Anyone who has seen Sophie B. Hawkins’ documentary The Cream Will Rise knows that she had a particularly rough childhood. On The Crossing it seems like she might finally be processing some of those issues. For example, on “Missing,” it seems very specific and personal when Hawkins sings “So here I am / Wishing / We could talk about everything / I want to know / How is dad / How’s your work going / I want the chance to explain . . .”

The standout on the album is Hawkins’ tribute to the Native American Indians. With lines like “You never fenced me in / My spirit never gives you chills an / Sweeping your desert like the wind / Nations gather for a reckoning / You may be deaf but every rock and tree is listening” (“The Lant The Sea And The Sky”), Hawkins immortalizes the ancient civilization of North America while contrasting it with the materialism of the United States. This is a theme long-neglected in pop-rock music and Hawkins adds a distinctive voice to the underused genre.

But not all of Hawkins’ musical risks pay off. On the song “Georgia,” which has elements of being a musical storysong, Hawkins falls into a surprisingly stale rhyme scheme. With her lines “And Georgia years from now / When I see you walkin’ / I hope you’ll stop and smile / It’ll be so funny talkin’ / We’ll be older then / and maybe wise / And if you find what you love, baby don’t compromise” (“Georgia”), Hawkins presents what appears to be a crush down a very singsong path that does not match the sophistication of the rest of the album. And the reference to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is just shudder-worthy.

The Crossing also features new acoustic versions of Sophie B. Hawkins’ hits “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” and “As I Lay Me Down.” While they are pleasant nostalgia, the album ends on a note of unfortunate familiarity. When Sophie B. Hawkins broke onto the music scene, she described having hundreds of songs written and it seemed like there would be no end to the original material she would release. With The Crossing listeners waited almost a decade to get an album about the process of healing and the past of Sophie B. Hawkins. Perhaps with the next album, Hawkins will finally put the past behind her and give listeners an entirely new album. And, hopefully, it will not take a decade to get that album released! But, in a worst case scenario, The Crossing makes for a decent companion for that wait.

The best track is “The Land The Sea And The Sky,” the low point is the short version of “Betchya Got A Cure For Me.”

For other works by Sophie B. Hawkins, please check out my reviews of:
"Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" (single)
Tongues And Tails
"I Want You" (single)
"Right Beside You" (single)
"As I Lay Me Down" (single)
The Cream Will Rise (documentary)
Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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