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 morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we delve deep into a contemporary jazz vocalist and songwriter, Steven Blane. I adore his self-description of himself, “I write, sing, play ukulele, piano and guitar,” he explains. “I’m an interesting songwriter. I’m getting kinda’ old; I’m sorta’ cool.” He’s definitely very cool, in fact, and his latest studio endeavor is rather excellent. Let’s check out his nine-tune collection, ‘Kill Me Nice.’
Now, as we discuss Blane as a jazz performer, it’s worth touching on what kind of jazz performer he is. This is contemporized, pop-infused, smooth jazz with R&B elements. It’s the kind of jazz you may very well hear Tony Bennett performing. One could argue that this style of the genre is most enjoyable during the holiday season, or at least, most fitting. Even though ‘Kill Me Nice’ isn’t a holiday record, it felt abundantly suitable in my studio which has recently been decorated for the holidays. You could flip on this record as the family puts up the tree this year and it would create a wonderful aura that isn’t cheesy or kitschy like most music in its vein.
‘Just In Case I Fall Asleep’ is an elegant opener to the record, but I’d argue the even stronger effort is ‘Coffee Understands Me.’ The latter track exhibits the prowess of Blane and his backing group. From the sparse trumpet to the remarkably tactful electric guitar segments, ‘Coffee Understands Me’ is a beautifully witty love tune. Blane does a nice job juggling classic jazz themes with some modernized musings. That is exemplified even further on the next track, ‘Too Beautiful For Words.’
‘Too Beautiful Words’ genuinely feels like a track off a later Sinatra record. It meanders along with a plodding bass line as Blane croons about Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow. Now, let’s talk about that comparison a bit, because Sinatra is arguably one of the pinnacle figures of this vocal style. The reason Sinatra was so perfect at his craft was not only his vocal chops, but his delivery and phrasing. It wasn’t how just how well he sang something, but how he chose to articulate those lines. Blane does a fine job of this, and his phrasing is personable, suave, and lovely. He does occupy territory that runs the risk of becoming cliche or campy. Fortunately, Blane avoids those pitfalls with his enthusiasm and personality.
‘I Love My NYC’ is, as you would expect, a love letter to the Big Apple. It’s sharply written and executed, though it may be the track of ‘Kill Me Nice’ that’ll grow oldest quickly. You’ll only want to hear about Blane’s food habits and the Central Park Zoo and 30 Rock a few times over before the track becomes something you may omit from your listening experience in the long run. Fortunately, the best track of the bunch follows it - the title track.
‘Kill Me Nice’ is an exceptional song. Blane’s ukulele bounces off a tactful piano and superb bass line immensely well, and goodness, Blane’s delivery is great. The first half of the track offers a gritty, Tom Waits/Leonard Cohen-esque delivery, while the latter half evolves into one of Blane’s most articulate and enjoyable presentations. More so, the song is a lyrical triumph, providing a stark contrast to the previous track. The song is a poignant statement for Blane’s relevance as a modern artist - every element of the song is balanced in harmony.
‘Red High Heels’ has a very swinging feel to it, certainly embracing a slightly different style of jazz than the rest of the collection. It’s another high point for Blane, making ‘Kill Me Nice’ and ‘Red High Heels’ the powerhouse duo of the middle-half of the album. The instrumentation is actually rather bluesy, and the electric guitar pieces are excellent. This is a tune that would go over very well over here in the Windy City.
‘You Once Killed A Guy’ returns to the sound of the first few tracks of the record. It’s a nice lyrical romp, but it feels like a segway into ‘You Wanna Know,’ another exemplary track. I adore Blane’s darker, low-voiced musings, especially when the tune slowly evolves into something spectacular. ‘You Wanna Know’ an amazing jaunt through some of Blane’s finest lyricism and delivery. ‘Spark’ then follows, closing the album out with a soft, but oddly anthemic love song.
When I first tuned into Blane’s music, I was under the impression that he was a fine jazz vocalist, but perhaps not much more than the guy playing on the second floor of Nordstrom's during the holiday season. When you dig into ‘Kill Me Nice,’ however, a much deeper, enigmatic artist emerges. His lyrics are excellent, his delivery, often masterful. This is one of the most enjoyable contemporary jazz records I’ve listened to this year.
Will Blane appeal to a younger audience? Only if the younger audience is educated on the context of Blane’s style. A young listener with an understanding of jazz will find great appreciation for Blane’s music. A younger listener who is only tuned into Top 40 radio? Probably not. I will, say, though, that this kind of jazz goes down easy. Jazz is a daunting genre to my generation, especially because of the lack of it in our culture. ‘Kill Me Nice’ is an effort that maneuvers you into a style of the genre that is extremely accessible and most definitely rewarding to experience. Check out Blane below on his site and stream the record.