Broke Down Beautiful
Independent release, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/13/2011
The margin of talent between gifted athletes and those exceptional enough to actually make a living as professionals in their sport is tiny; seconds and inches that add up to hours and miles over the course of a thousand thousand repetitions. Listening to this album a few times leads me to believe that the same can be said of musical artists.
Steve Krause’s sophomore independent release Broke Down Beautiful demonstrates abundant potential for the folk-pop singer-songwriter. He comes off very much in the vein of a David Wilcox or James Taylor in the warmth, sincerity and intimacy of his voice, and demonstrates a solid grasp of songwriting technique. The album as a whole benefits from the contributions of seasoned, sympathetic pros like producer Ben Wisch (Marc Cohn, David Wilcox) and Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter). But… well, keep reading.
Opener “We Both Know” starts at the end of a relationship—the beginning, middle and ending of relationships being the primary subject matter of this album—and charts the quiet despair of a gradually fraying connection. It’s not the most original lyric, but it’s well-crafted and well-performed and hits the right buttons. “Only Always” is the clear highlight here, doing what any good story-song should do, which is to make the imagination fire. A tune about meeting his future wife on a plane, it got me thinking about what I might say at my daughter’s wedding; that tells you that the words hit their target, and the music supported them well.
“Lullaby For Zoe” is where the album first stumbles. It’s a sweet song with the best of intentions, but when you’re already working smack in the middle of James Taylor territory, you can’t just go out and lift one of your idol’s best-loved lines (“You can close your eyes”). Not cool. Color me already annoyed by the time Krause’s cover of Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis” came on next.
Krause earns points for guts here—and for somehow talking Wisch into it, seeing as he produced the original—but they should both have known better. The original is so memorable because Cohn sang it like a gospel revelation: first all delicate tension, then surging up and out, then overflowing with jubilant celebration. This song simply requires that you sing it from the bottom of your soul, as Cohn did. By comparison—and with a song this well-known, comparisons are inevitable—Krause’s version feels flat and clinical. Loving a great song and delivering a great cover of it are two very different things, and the second is much, much harder to accomplish than the first.
The real issue that develops in the second half of this album, though, is that the songs sound increasingly generic and self-conscious. The sentiments of tunes like “Gone On You” and “Wherever You Are” are perfectly pleasant, but they feel like songwriting exercises more than actual songs. In each case Krause seems to have come up with one passably good, if not terribly original, lyrical idea and then tried to build a song around it, filling in the gaps with a daisy chain of clichés.
Interestingly, the outside-the-box cover of Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything” fares much better than “Memphis.” Krause’s vocals are intense and spooky, and violinist Elana Arian’s harmony vocals add depth and texture to a tune that provides some welcome grit and darkness on an otherwise rather bland and safe album.
Like “Sleep Of The Dead” before it, “Hearts In The Graveyard” is a topical song. The subject here is domestic abuse, and Krause manages a couple of good lines—“Sorry means nothing / When it’s not a mistake,” for one—but still feels somewhat contrived, like the product of a songwriting workshop rather than an original voice.
What beauty this album manages to muster lies in the simplicity and clarity of its spare arrangements; they’re never crowded and Krause’s voice is always out front where it belongs on this sort of narrative folk-pop album. If only the songs lived up to their arrangements (and their singer had had the wisdom to leave “Walking In Memphis” well enough alone).