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Album Review

SWEET TALK RADIO
My Hallelujah

God knows what it is, but the vast majority (and I'm talking vast majority) of males in male/female duos do not and by inference apparently do not want to sing. In the case of Tim Burlingame of Sweet Talk Radio, it is confusing. I know he can sing. He did on Matthew Lee's first class Atom Factory album--- it was through Lee that Sweet Talk Radio came to my attention, in fact. It was the guitar and vocals on Atom Factory's New Sunshine which told me all I needed to know about STR. A soulful pop song a step above Hall & Oates, the background vocals (usually super slick with vocals stacked high) has a quiet in-your-living-room sound and you could just tell they were special. Sure, Burlingame sings on My Hallelujah as well, but if you blink, you miss it.

I wouldn't be at all surprised were he simply intimidated. Kathrin Shorr has, after all, a world class voice and fronting her is somewhat of an automatic (Burlingame is a musician of note, trust me), but when you hear them work together on the haunting slide-infested anthem Ballad of Hank Williams, you end up wanting more Shorr---and more slide guitar, Burlingame's touch pure and sweet, and what about that out of this world banjo solo (is it banjo or muted acoustic guitar?) and where did that chord come from and a handful of other things. It's an adventure just hearing all of the little touches they put down on this one track and... uh... what were we talking about? Ah, yes, the vocals. You know what? Never mind. After hearing (once again--- I have enjoyed this many, many times) what he does instrumentally, he doesn't have to sing. I grant him immunity.

Truth be told, Shorr has voice enough for them both. She carries a tune like a loving mother carries a baby, can step it up a notch like a mother scolding a teenage daughter, and can reach deep down into your soul like a mother consoling a broken heart. I won't go any further with this line of thinking... wink, wink.

Ten seconds into My Hallelujah, I was wondering if we had another Hem on our hands--- well, in our ears. If you love beautiful and ethereal and you don't know Hem, you're missing something. I have two yardsticks for such music--- Hem and the amazingly overlooked Amelia Jay. Each follows a voice of extraordinary beauty--- the former, Sally Ellyson, and the latter, Jeanette Beswick--- voices which make me forget there are voices to which they can be compared.

Let me introduce you to another voice in that same ballpark. Yep, Kathrin Shorr. While her voice stretches beyond the Americana/celestial area of the aforementioned, on My Hallelujah (the song) she mixes power and delicacy with a dusting of despondency, creating an aura similar to those just mentioned.

The album has a variety of songs here, though I cannot separate them in style, rather direction, for Sweet Talk Radio's songs are so good they defy genre. To place limitations on a great song is like calling Led Zeppelin's D'yer Mak'er hard rock. I mean, it is, but it is also so much more. So much so that most of us now mention it as simply Zeppelin. Thus it is with My Hallelujah and a number of other songs on this album.

I will mention Ballad of Hank Williams first because there is something about this song which will appeal to the majority, starting with the simple use of the name. Hank Williams is legend in country music and now that country is the new pop, he commands more respect today than he did during his lifetime. Still, the name is only the start of the magic.

Actually, the start is an harmonic siren call, eerie in its sound and isolation. Then begins the light rhythm, plucked instrument interplay setting ghostly bedrock for Shorr, who steps into Grace Slick territory and handles it beautifully, forceful and on point without excess. Enter the slide work of Burlingame, who with deft touch takes it into the realm of the devil (though ever so marginally), sliding lightly among the bedrock instruments and voice. If masterful hadn't been done to death, I would describe it in those terms, the clean efficient sound itself deserving of listing as an instrument. Shorr continues her siren sound at appropriate moments throughout and ends with one extended note wrapped in echo. Excuse me for a second while I mop my brow.

That isn't even close to all there is. Leaving For Memphis resounds with that Jackson Browne touch, especially on the chorus. You could superimpose Browne's voice over Shorr's and not be surprised, but you have to wonder why you would want to do that. If she wanted to, Shorr could pull your heart out of your chest with that voice. What is the term--- blood from a turnip? As for the Jackson Browne mention, you really have to hear it to understand.

Speaking of the heart, it gets squeezed tight by the slightly upbeat but forlorn Where Were You, a non-ballad which really is (a ballad... pay attention, now). This is emotional pain in rock format and once again, production is instrument. The song is beautiful in its simplicity, amazing in its sound.

To my ears and heart, though, Let Me Come Over is the absolute gem of this album. Almost a winter song, it reeks of lonely nights next to a sweat-beaded window and leaves off the trees and love and, more, the loneliness of love. The song is moody, solemn and hopeful, yet sans hope. It captures desolation, level 'id', and has no right to be so hauntingly beautiful, but it is and has not failed yet to bring my soul to a complete stop each and every time I have heard it.

I suppose it would be easy enough for most of us to slot this as Americana, but that says more about our world as individuals and the vacuum pumps we have substituted for our hearts. We say we like music and yet we don't have time to sit through a good song or even a great one these days unless it is underlaid with video or has been accepted by the masses or is mere soundbyte behind a TV or Internet ad. Amongst cries of 'where has all the good music gone', musicians play good and great music to mostly deaf ears, trying desperately to be heard, though desperation it isn't. It is frustration, though, and not just for the musicians. As someone who has music in the soul, I also am frustrated. I am not a musician, yet I hear myself more and more saying 'here, give my music a chance' and Sweet Talk Radio's music, after many many listens, is mine as is Hem's. And Amelia Jay's.

A musical wasteland? There can be no musical wasteland as long as the music is there. Sweet Talk Radio is another example of the phoenix rising from the ashes. A golden era for music? I believe we are right on the cusp. Sans major labels. With music like this times a thousand, it can't miss.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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