(Emote Records, CD)
The title of Vermont singer-songwriter Gregory Douglass' fifth release suggests it is a stripped-down affair. That is partially true; several of the 11 original songs on Stark are quiet and introspective, with spare guitar or piano and cryptic lyrics about love, loss and/or longing -- some even hint at political discontent. Perhaps "stark" refers to an emotional state of mind. But if the accompaniment is generally simple, this production nevertheless feels as lush as a string section.
In part that's due to Douglass' impossibly gorgeous voice -- its range, elasticity and passion are as impressive as ever, even though he sometimes reins in the trademark vocal gymnastics here for a more contemplative approach. But credit for the seductive sound of Stark must also go to the judicious use of, well, a string section -- albeit a very small one. Robin Chambers contributes viola and violin to three songs; Martha Colby plays cello on two. And though acoustic guitar is not generally considered orchestral, in the hands of Windham Hill's William Ackerman, it almost is -- he accompanies Douglass on the lullabye-like "Goodbye." Not least, co-producer Steve Holt and Tuck Stocking provide extremely fluid, pillow-soft bass on five tunes.
On any Gregory Douglass recording, his vocals are, and should be, the showcase; the trick is to create instrumentation and production that complement but do not interfere. Stark is stunningly successful on both counts. Pretty good for a laptop recording -- praise be to Pro-Tools! Of course, it helped that the sound wizard Lane Gibson of Charles Eller Studio did the mixing and mastering.
Opener "Crazy Love" tiptoes in with tinkling piano, soon followed by that sweetly soaring voice. It is one of the most evocative tunes on Stark, a cello-dappled 2:35 of utter beauty. Its follower, "Upside Down," also starts quietly, but kicks in with a compressed, subdued vocal, electronic drumbeat and a catchy chorus that is as close as the idiosyncratic Douglass gets to a pop hook. A second voice, that of Lisa Piccirillo, appears as backup on the jagged "Under the Gun," easily matching Douglass' sensuous vocals note for note. "Sail the Sea" is an impassioned tune with a wailing, David Gray-like chorus. It is also the only arrangement with a live drum kit, played by "Syd" -- who later contributes rollicking, almost-Latin percussion on "Dry."
"Where Did the Music Go?" is a melancholy masterpiece, thanks in part to the holy trinity of violin, viola and cello alongside Douglass' voice and delicate piano work. Stark ends on a hopeful note with "Better Tomorrow" -- and an ingenious, lovely "duet" with the Essex High School Madrigal Choir.
Nearly every tune here is extraordinary; the meticulous attention to small production details makes Stark a sonic marvel. The collection is so perfectly realized, it's delicious to imagine where this uncommonly gifted 24-year-old will take his music next.
Douglass probably won't haul out the Essex High School choir for his CD release gigs this week, but he will have a full band in tow Wednesday at the Bundy Arts Center in Waitsfield, and Friday at the FlynnSpace in Burlington.
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