March 5, 2013 :: Shannon Whitworth :: "High Tide" :: Review

Shannon Whitworth
"High Tide"
March 5, 2013

Bias: I first learned about Shannon Whitworth when I discovered her old band, The Biscuit Burners in 2007.  Her voice was simply haunting and mesmerizing - I loved it.  Unfortunately, by the time I finally got around to seeing the Biscuit Burners live on March 28th, 2008 at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Georgia, Whitworth had already left the band to pursue her solo career.  Sadly, The Biscuit Burners soon fizzled away.  However, I eventually saw Whitworth perform solo (with her new backing band) on May 7th, 2009 at Red Light Cafe in Atlanta.  And she was great!  Later that same year, she killed it again when I saw her a second time, opening for Packway Handle Band at Eddie's Attic on October 24th, 2009.  But while those first two solo performances were fantastic, and even though her first two solo albums were both strong (2007's "No Expectations" and 2010's "Water Bound") the last time I saw her on stage on February 24th, 2012, opening for Steep Canyon Rangers at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, I sort of felt like she was mailing it in.  It's a personal thing - I really prefer when a band's singer actually plays an instrument, and at that last show she spent far more time just standing there with a mic.  It was just a dull performance in general, and that certainly didn't help.  Maybe it's placebo (to me), but something different comes out of her when she's holding a banjo or guitar.  Supporting that claim, it was literally one year to the day prior to that lacklust Variety Playhouse performance when I saw her for my third time just down the street in an intimate living room performance at the Little 5 Points Music Center on February 24th, 2011.  It was just Whitworth and Barrett Smith sitting on chairs playing their instruments.  To me, that was magic.  The 2012 set at Variety Playhouse was not.  So, as I await this album's release, I'm hopeful that we'll get the Shannon Whitworth who, for whatever reason, shines brightest when she actually plays music and with an emphasis on progressive bluegrass.  That beautiful, haunting voice takes care of itself.  A great album will require light.

1st Listen: The first pass at the ten-song album was enjoyable, but not outstanding.  Whitworth is always consistently downbeat in a good way - it works for her voice - and this is no exception.  So, once again, you get a record that you can sort of quietly work and relax to with a morning coffee.  It's a non-jazzy Norah Jones vibe, that I really enjoy.  Sprinkled throughout are several really good songs, but there's also a few that seem like bad filler material that should've been left on the studio floor.  One or two of them are even somewhat jarring.  Everything else seems passable and worthy of the second listen.  So, the bottom line is that I wasn't completely blown away right off the bat, but I was definitely relaxed and pretty excited about three or four individual tracks.  And that's a good start.

2nd Listen: Sadly, a second pass at this album, closely detailing and scrutinizing the individual songs, didn't do it any favors.  Though it did start out on a positive note.  The title track "High Tide" is a really pretty song with nice hooks that does a great job displaying Whitworth's unique voice.  As an opening song, it hits just the right pace and sound.  Part of me wishes this was a bit more bluegrassy (in terms of instrumentation), and I think that'll be a common theme throughout the album.  Here, it feels a bit overproduced and electric.  "Waiting" has promise, but never really delivers.  Just as it starts to think about having a hook, it drifts off, falling back into the slow, meandering grey sky of blah.  There are hints of steel guitar which made me hopeful, but it never gets a moment to shine.  The third track, "Another Time," did nothing for me.  Again, the album shows signs of being way over-produced and electric.  The backing male vocals don't really add anything, but it's a boring, uncreative song to begin with. "You Are in Love" comes in fast and sharp with drums and totally changes the pace of the album.  It's not a horrible song, and there's a split moment in each chorus that is really pretty - but it's literally just a moment.  Still, to beat a dead horse, this fourth track sounds completely manufactured, and fails to explore musically in the breaks.  Track five, "Don't Lie" is a dramatically slowed down remake of a song from her previous 2010 album, "Water Bound," which seems like a rather weird thing to do.  Interesting to change it around live, perhaps, but not sure why the track is repeated on a follow up album.  Mind you, it's a pretty song and a somewhat interesting take on the previous version.  Still, I just don't understand the point.  "La Croix" is the sixth track, and it's not bad.  Though, it does sort of exemplify what I'm not liking about this album.  There's a complete overuse of echo effects - which isn't always bad.  But here it seems to be a device that's wildly overused, and with the lack of traditional bluegrass instrumentation, it creates something that sounds like Pro Tools gone mad.  And it's nothing close to the old Biscuit Burners sound that drew me to Whitworth's voice in the first place.  This song is relaxing and definitely has it's moments, but it's not remarkable.  The follow up song is "Henry" which has a somewhat distinct old western feel to it, which is nice, but, overall, fails to deliver anything overly interesting.  Track eight is another remake, this time of "Hot August Evening" off of the 2004 Biscuit Burners album "Fiery Mountain Music."  One of my favorite tunes off of that original album, it still sounds pretty damn good here.  But it's uniquely different from her version recorded almost a decade ago.  In the original, Billy Cardine highlights it with his amazing dobro playing, and there's something wonderfully mountainous about it.  "Hot August Evening" is definitely a highlight track here, but I still prefer the original.  Now, stick with me, because I have a weird thing about the ninth track on any album.  For some really strange reason, I've always thought nine was special when it comes to records.  Here, the song "Isis" is decidedly not.  Same complaints as before - boring and overproduced.  Finally, then, the tenth track "So Far Away," a Mark Knopfler cover, nicely buttons up everything I've been complaining about.  It's whimsical but unimaginative, the instrumentation doesn't take risks, and the reverb controls were jacked just about all the way up on Whitworth's vocals.  So, here's hoping the third listen changes my perception of this album.

3rd Listen: In between the second and third listen, I stumbled on an interview with Whitworth where she sort of validated my initial suspicion that she has drifted away from the bluegrassy sound that I was initially attracted to.  On incorporating more electric instruments, she told ASCAP, "I have been heading in this direction musically for several years.  I have been lucky to put together the right band to help execute my vision."  Definitely not what I wanted to read.  That said, the third listen on the living room speakers definitely helped.  It's absolutely best as background music.  "Waiting" certainly benefited from this type of listen.  As did "La Croix," and "Henry."  Though, "Another time" actually got worse.

In a Sentence: It might be pretty decent as background music, but Shannon Whitworth's "High Tide" is otherwise unremarkable, as exemplified by the fact that two of the best tracks are simply remakes from previous albums.

Three Songs for the Playlist: High Tide :: Don't Lie :: Hot August Evening

Note: Opinions are my own and do not represent my employer.
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