I know I’ve mentioned this before, so pardon me if I sound like a broken record here. But Vermont is blessed with a startling number of elite, young female songwriters and performers. From the obvious names such as Grace Potter and Anaïs Mitchell to on-the-cusp chanteuses such as Myra Flynn, Maryse Smith and Tiffany Pfeiffer to a growing number of lesser-known singers making waves in the coffeehouse scene, the contributions of women to Vermont music are remarkable and growing. On her self-titled debut album, Vermont’s Sarah Wallis adds to the embarrassment of riches and proves she belongs at the forefront of any conversation about rising young local talents.
“Cold Heat” introduces Wallis as a vocal force. Her thin, vulnerable delivery immediately recalls that of Mitchell, a fellow Vermont-born songwriter. Like Mitchell, Wallis wields her unique timbre with cunning, squeezing every ounce of emotive juice from her reedy pipes. Unlike Mitchell, however, Wallis favors a far more overtly pop-centric aesthetic. She hasn’t yet reached the same level of artistic ingenuity as our favorite Righteous Babe, but Wallis displays an innate understanding of pop constructs. In particular here, she clearly nods to Stevie Nicks’ classic “Landslide.” Wallis isn’t breaking any molds, but with a voice like hers, she hardly has to.
That’s not to say she isn’t capable of significant artistic ventures. While her debut lands mostly on the radio-ready end of the pop spectrum, in certain moments she reveals loftier ambitions. “Kettle” features a subtly dynamic arrangement that bends to Wallis’ gripping delivery. “Little Boat” is an album highlight, a lilting waltz buoyed by the songwriter’s tasteful Rhodes strokes and rippling acoustic guitar. The following cut, “Sea Side,” is an intimate, lo-fi charmer, sounding as though it were recorded in some late-night session with plentiful whiskey and cigarettes.
“Salt” is a stunner and perhaps best signals Wallis’ potential. A grainy accordion wheezes above fleeting, atmospheric Rhodes swells, fleshing out an otherwise stark arrangement. Wallis challenges the song’s minimalist mood with a craftily nuanced vocal performance, her fractured croon seemingly on the edge of a collapse that never comes. It is tense, compelling and satisfying, and suggests we should expect more good things from Sarah Wallis in years to come.
Wallis appears at the Bee’s Knees in Morrisville on Wednesday, March 2. Her self-titled debut is available at sarahwallismusic.com.
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