Juanita Stein’s new solo record is called ‘America‘ and the open highway on the cover also signals that this is a new direction for the Howling Bells front woman. This album veers away from the burning indie rock of her past creating something more lush and listenable.
The album opener, Florence, creates a feeling of a dark saloon band playing in the Wild West, if you look closely maybe you’ll see a girl behind the bar working for her pittance. Stein sings about this luckless character with optimistic admiration, You’ll survive another storm/you’ll survive so many more. For her it’s survival, not success that is the true spirit of America.
Dark Horse is a pop song but there’s an undercurrent of something a little different here, a feeling of freedom that comes from being in the shadows. When she sings about being Tangled in a dream you can interpret this as a statement about the music too. There’s a real understated beauty to these songs and no abrasive edges like in some of her band’s previous work.
Black Winds has Stein singing in her highest register over the sound of sinister swirling sounds and guitars. I’ll Cry is the breathless song of a femme fatale and is a dead ringer for Lana Del Rey. I wasn’t going to mention her but you can’t help but find yourself hearing the similarities, especially on this song. Thankfully Stein has a kinder more comforting voice, there’s nothing of the cold dead heart of that eternally bored pop star.
The song titles of Stargazer and Shimmering give you a real sense of the beauty of this album. It floats over you, feeling like the soundtrack to some tragic love affair. It’s All Wrong couldn’t be further from the truth – the voice and the guitars spin around your room like the light from a mirrorball.
Interesting then that Cold Comfort goes for the straight Americana sound, so different from the blissed out indie pop of the rest of the record. It’s a classic country heartbreak song, not sung with twang but the guitars create this honky tonk feeling. Perhaps the album could have done with a few more tracks like this, as on its own it perhaps feels a little tacked on in order to fit the album into the Americana genre.
The final track ‘America‘ is sung to the country itself. She knows things have gone wrong, people have suffered, innocence is lost but she wants the country to move on and try to remember their dreams. The song looks into the dark heart of a place and only sees goodness and hope for the future. America you’re close to paradise. And this is not just about one place, it’s about how every human being has the potential to be better, to forget the past and head for the light. It’s a stunning end to the album, showcasing Stein’s achingly perfect vocals, her rich sound and expansive vision.
‘America‘ may not be where Juanita Stein is from but in it she has found a perfect place for her music to live and grow. Listen to this album and you will find her new home a warm and welcoming world.