Haley Bonar - Big Star
Record Label: Afternoon Records
Release Date: June 10, 2008
No matter how its dressed up, no matter how sparse or gritty it is, there are few things that make female-fronted folksingers not worth listening to. For reasons known and unknown, the female perspective in song is always a bit more quivery, a bit more skeptical, and always, despite how its presented, it makes for an engaging listen. The latest disc to fit these paramaters is Haley Bonar's Big Star. Over the course of 11 mostly hushed songs, she manages to marry together roots-rock, alt.country and folk, while also retaining the sensitive singer/songwriter tendencies. None of the songs are incredibly uplifting, that is to say, few are mid-tempo, and while the ones that are shine like a beacon, none of the lyrical content is incredibly hopeful.
Raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Bonar brings a bit of the wintry rust and small-town despair while also presenting the mournful, plaintive female perspective. Opening song "Green Eyed Boy" has a gentle rollick to it with a bit of alt.country punch, and "Arms a Harm" is much the same. It's an effective one-two punch and signals the sound of a confident vocalist and a comfortable songwriter. Her voice is filled with clarity and conviction. Every word out of her mouth comes across as not only truth but heartfelt sincerity. That is to say, one gets the impression she isn't just singing abstract thoughts, but singing about her own inner pain. Things slow down with "Little Maiden Gin," the title track and "Mayday," the latter painting a dreary portrait of spring. Many have penned Bonar as an emerging wordsmith along the lines of Lucinda Williams, and such is true on the title track, a cutting dig at the music business: "You can dress yourself up
put on a little bit of makeup, go out and get a haircut, and stumble out into the morning, they'll all hate you tomorrow, when no one buys your single, when you fall you look the other way."
"Better Half" tries its hands at mid-tempo rock, in much the same light as "Green Eyed Boy," but outdoes it before the first chorus hits. While her record label is pushing "Big Star" as the first single, "Better Half," is definitely the must-listen of the first half. From there, the album takes off, with the Mary Lou Lord-esque "Something Great," to the rural hop of "Queen of Everything," and the small-town lament, "Highway 16." The latter two songs, "Along," and "Tiger Boy," are quiet offerings with just Bonar and her guitar, proving that she's adept at singing in any medium. Fans of Bonar's often say, "I can listen to this girl sing the phone book," and the adage is so true. There's nothing entirely overwhelming or theatrical about her voice, but it does the job and does so with an ability that resonates long after the disc stops spinning.
Her prior two albums Lure the Fox and Size of Planets offered a glimmer of hope and the promise of something special, but Big Star definitely delivers. With the aiding hand of mixer Tchad Blake (Ari Hest, Sheryl Crow, Phantom Planet), Bonar puts together a disc that is striking and profound. Big Star is a revelation for its attention to detail and its minimalistic approach. This isn't a disc awash in layers and sonic density. There isn't a laundry list of instruments, either. Instead the light, crystalline vocals of a female singer/songwriter take center stage. With Big Star, Haley Bonar is fully comfortable in her own groove and wholly cognizant of her career path. With that in mind, her next disc might just take the music world by storm.