The hardest music to evaluate is that which glimmers with promise, but drives the reviewer to ambivalence. Musical taste is, of course, like physical taste–one person's chocolate delight is another's limp kale. Whenever I'm moved to ambivalence I ask questions such as: Is this just not a genre I enjoy? (I am bored to tears by klezmer, for instance.) Is it poorly recorded? A one-trick pony? Inappropriate? (I'm not sure why anyone records solo clogging.) Mediocre? Those are easy. Harder are those that simply lack "spark," my dilemma on recent releases from Hope and Justin and from Toby Lightman. I offer the following observations cognizant of the possibility that floodlights may go off for others.
Hope and Justin Schneir's Eastern Bound is actually a 2013 release that was recently forwarded to me. They are a California-based husband-and-wife duo who describe their music as "70s folk and bluegrass with a modern vibe." They front four other musicians and collectively produce tight instrumentals. The songs, however, felt limp whenever Hope took the lead. She has a nice voice and as she demonstrates on the CD's best track, "Ball and Chain," one with occasional winning catches and ornamentation. Alas, it's not a clear one and it's strong only in the mid ranges. As can be heard on "When the Fire Came Down," when she has to reach up or drop down, she struggles. Justin's voice is drier and faintly reminiscent of Mark Erelli, though he too is strongest in the mid-ranges. The good news is that both are fine harmony singers and a part of me thinks that Hope and Justin would fit well as backups with occasional solo spotlights inside the traveling band of someone such as Gillian Welch or Mary Chapin Carpenter. As a solo act, Hope and Justin are good, but probably not good enough to make serious waves.
Toby Lightman's sampler Time Traveler demonstrates that she has a glorious voice capable of singing anything and, alas, she often does. She's been compared to Sheryl Crow–an apt descriptor if we throw in the pyrotechnics of pop princesses du jour. Lightman's voice is filled with husk and power. On songs such as "Let Go," she's finger-snapping funky and sassy; on "Lost," she makes us feel the pain. There's nothing inherently wrong with the other four tracks other than they are decidedly pop offerings. My take, though, is that a repertoire freighted with such songs also makes it sound ephemeral and slight. These tracks are the sort that get (and have gotten) mentions from USA Today and Entertainment Weekly. And how many flashes in the pan do each expose in a given month? Toby Lightman has a voice for the ages, but she needs to add some timeless songs to her repertoire before the current ones expire.