Striving to perfect the art of introspective and soul searching songwriting over the last 13 years, Steve Messina, as part of and co-founder of New York musical collective Blow Up Hollywood, has come up with an emotionally raw suite of songs on Blue Sky Blond, the band's fifth album of new material to date.
Their discography also includes the rather fine compilation Collections, an obvious place to start for the Blow Up Hollywood newbie, and the John Cage-like improvised electronic ambient minimalism of Stars End, which incidentally is no relation to the David Bedford work of the same name.
That Blue Sky Blond should come out now, at a personally difficult time in my life when the big questions seem to have taken up permanent residence in my sometimes fraught mind seems somehow fitting, and the album makes for a quietly uplifting companion in these unsettling times.
The album is bookended by four very dissimilar but ultimately ambient pieces, with Blond at the beginning, and at the end the lone treated guitar of Sky followed by a brief choral reprise of Where Does The Night Go, before signing off with the minor key reflective piano of Blue.
In between is the sumptuous sandwich filling of eight superbly crafted songs that left me, in my currently fragile state, feeling sad but ready to face whatever is coming. Certainly the most personal collection of Steve Messina's writing to date, these eight autobiographical songs come from a period in his life when loss and struggling to make sense of it all were still all too fresh in the writer's mind, and hopefully represent a catharsis for him. They reflect an empathy with the soul and an all-encompassing melancholy tinged with hope that few others can match.
As I've followed this band's output for a few years now, these tales of loves past and present, death and loss, the passing of time, karma, and metaphysical musings come as no surprise, but now they are refined to a point where they head right for the emotional heart of their subject matter. Heartstrings are tugged all over this album.
Some of the songs seem to have have been around for a while, the simple but highly effective Throw Me A Line being one. A tale of emotional desperation, the backing singers Anthea White and Nadia Ackerman answer the call for help from our distraught protagonist, and the scene is set for one emotionally raw album.
Hope for love and new beginnings is neatly juxtaposed with the effects of loss on Headed For The Sun followed by Waiting For My Ship. The latter song also cleverly contrasts what reads as grim subject matter with an uplifting tune that turns it down a more optimistic path.
Blow Up Hollywood is not a one-man show as my meanderings might lead you to think, oh no. Co-founder Nik Chinboukas is still here, but is now behind the mixing desk. Long time member Thad DeBrock with his guitars and pedal steel, and Harvey Jones on the piano and the others, most of whom have been on previous Blow Up Hollywood albums, combine to produce a sympathetic framework for Steve's delicate songcraft. The music to these songs is a kind of post-rock white soul music that sits alongside the more sonically adventurous ambient pieces without clashing, producing a luxurious musical blanket with which to comfort the sometimes bleak lyrics.
Shine is a tale from the other side that could almost be a stadium-sized torch ballad if you give your imagination a bit of leeway. Where Does The Night Go makes good use of (possibly) electronic beats and simple piano chords, as Steve gets about as yearning as it is possible to get. Belying the autumnal Harvest Moon-era Neil Young musical vibe on Desert Rose is a disturbing tale of karma that unwinds slowly over its nine minutes.
The hot off the presses video for Five perfectly captures the song's wistful longing for the more the more innocent times of childhood, now long gone. The songs end with Marjorie, a song which strikes me as the most personal here, and it would not be doing it justice to dissect its plain simple truth.
A band beyond classification, their own description of "warped Americana" is about as close as you'll get, and I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes to shine the inner light now and again. It's not an album you'll play incessantly, but it is definitely a grower, and thanks to the serendipity of this review, and what's going on in my world right now, it will always have a place in my heart. Thanks guys!
"I can reach the stars, if I try"
1. Blond (1:08)
2. Throw Me A Line (6:48)
3. Headed For The Sun (5:04)
4. Waiting For My Ship (4:03)
5. Shine (4:23)
6. Where Does The Night Go (4:25)
7. Desert Rose (9:06)
8. Five (5:30)
9. Marjorie (4:26)
10. Sky (3:12)
11. Where Does The Night Go (0:34)
12. Blue (1:49)
Total running time - 50:32
Steve Messina - vocals, acoustic guitar
Thad DeBrock - electric guitar, pedal steel, keyboards
Teddy Kumpel - electric guitar
Steve Bonacio - bass guitar, doodles (thanks!)
Dave Diamond - drums
Harvey Jones - piano
Nadia Ackerman - vocals
Anthea White - vocals
Background vocals and strings arranges by Harvey Jones