Whitney Vandell - 'One-Girl Symphony'

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this evening’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we tackle a woman known as the ‘one-girl symphony.’ Whitney Vandell’s debut record takes its namesake from that same title, one that has been hard-earned by Vandell over years of intense work. The African-native instrumentalist has released one of the more intriguing and eclectic instrumental records thus far this year on the indie scene.

What makes the ‘One-Girl Symphony’ so interesting is Vandell’s hand over a vast array of genres. The record style-hops with ridiculous tact, shifting from classical influences to rock and roll and blues in seamless movements. Speaking of which, there actually are movements. Her debut album is broken into four autobiographical sections of three songs each: Teenage Turbulence, The Formative Years, Return to Innocence & Hope, and Empty Promises to Broken Hearts. Thus, it makes sense to arrange this review in the order of Vandell’s movements.

The ‘Teenage Turbulence’ set of songs certainly conveys elements of experimentalism and confusion. Vandell seems to beautifully capture each stage of not only her own life, but stages that certainly aren’t foreign to the rest of us. The highlight of the ‘Turbulence’ trifecta is ‘Orleans Dirt,’ a grass rootsy, intense instrumental that perfectly melds electric guitar, sparse brass sections, tight percussion, and a killer violin. That violin becomes a mainstay of every song, and you’ll be glad it is.

Once you transition into ‘The Formative Years,’ the tone of ‘One-Girl Symphony’ drastically changes. ‘Violins In The Hood’ introduces brief vocal pieces, something that is certainly a pleasant surprise after three instrumental tracks. The track feels more rock and roll oriented, perhaps even with a hint of Motown influence. The music itself feels less erratic than its three predecessors. ‘What Can I Say,’ or ‘Falling In Love,’ is the highlight of the second movement. This haunting track mixes rock orchestration with soft, meaningful nuances. Vandell also shows off her guitar chops as well.

As long as we’re on the subject of her guitar performance, it is worth mentioning that this album is surprising not only in its articulate design and composition, but in its performance. Vandell truly is a ‘one-girl symphony’ and the soundscapes she’s creating on her own rival those created by actual symphonies. Each song seems to spotlight a different element of her talent, such as the closing to the second movement, ‘Baby I Love You,’ which toys with piano and organ lead to significant success.

The third movement in Vandell’s symphony offers an even starker contrast to its two previous counterparts. ‘Days We Shared,’ the introduction to ‘Return to Innocence & Hope,’ feels primarily classical. The grittier rock and roll influences have subsided for beautiful string harmonies elegantly accented with piano. I adore this movement; ‘Days We Shared’ is one of the two or three best tracks of the bunch.

The return to innocence that Vandell is illustrating in the third movement is designed superbly with pieces that feel refreshing and full of hope. ‘Eternal Savannah’ is another excellent track, and ‘Playing In The Streets’ concretes the section.  Vandell’s musical prowess culminates and resides in this third movement; it’s impactful and soothing.

Finally, you arrive at ‘Empty Promises to Broken Hearts,’ the final movement in ‘One-Girl Symphony.’ This section has some similar themes to its predecessor in that it feels organized and provocative. Its introspective, however, and tracks like ‘Distant Light’ seem to orchestrate Vandell’s reminiscing of the past and hope for the future. ‘Stratosphere’ may be the most poignant piece in the final set of songs.

‘One-Girl Symphony’ is a beautiful debut record, one that is far better than nearly any other indie debut I’ve ever reviewed. The final two movements do blend together a bit, but the contrast between all four is certainly apparent. It’s a compelling way to tackle a record and it paid off on this one. I’m eager to watch Vandell’s music forward because she was able to fit such a retrospective into such a succinct collection... I can’t imagine where she goes from here. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s about as close as anyone is going to get for their first time out the door.

Check out Whitney Vandell online: http://whitneyvandell.com/