Reviews

 
 

— BILL COPELAND, Music News

Sarah Mendelsohn’s debut solo CD IF is one of those local artist offerings that make you wonder why this artist is not already signed and famous. IF, loaded with finely crafted, rich, tuneful songs, manages to be a complete album experience from bright beginning to glorious finale. There are not too many traces of her work with area reggae band Duppy Conquerors. In fact, much of Mendelsohn’s material defies category.

Opening cut “Drowning” finds Mendelsohn crooning her sorrows with credible emotion and inflection. She sashays her vocal over a mournful but beautiful melody and groove from her adept support players, weaving even more emotion within this tuneful piece. There is a bit of a strut in the backing band’s march of notes that contrasts wonderfully with the haunted vocal and its sense of being caught in a bad place.

“Blind Side” travels along a country shuffle groove. Above the shuffle and a high stepping guitar line, Mendelsohn sings with a purty twang, full of heart while moving through multiple shifts in dynamics and range. She sings it fast, slower, higher, slightly lower. These inflections give the tune a large feeling of motion that matches the huge emotions Mendelsohn sings about.

Mendelsohn shows her chops even more on her tune “Evil Lurks There.” Just the way she sings those three words gives a sense of motion and emotion. Throughout this number Mendelsohn sings with a purity of voice and heart that cannot be matched. She climbs in strength and range as she rides her chorus then comes out of it ready to glide along the rails of verses with her lilting voice.

“No Man’s Land” gives enough of a country feel to imagine a woman living the honky tonk life this song is all about. Mendelsohn’s breezy vocal approach is easy on the ears as she tugs at our attention with the smooth prettiness of her timbre. Her slight touch of vocal twang finds a natural home among Jonas Kahn’s really cool lead guitar phrases, and that is just one more layer of a good, earthy thing.

Mendelsohn approaches the epic theme “My Armour Opened” with a low key swagger. She moseys on up to the moment with a careful consideration. The contrast between large, personal theme and easeful, mid tempo breeze creates a larger sense of what this tune is about. Kahn offers a keyboard accompaniment that tickles the ear while adding another layer of loss, fear, and uncertainty as Mendelsohn keeps this dandy feeling like a bittersweet affair. Did I mention that rapper Kabir Sen makes a strong appearance with a nifty reinforcement of Mendelsohn’s theme.

“I Will Rise” is a self-empowerment number. Mendelsohn is the girl who gets back on her proverbial horse and rides even being badly tossed off her first attempt. Her pretty chirp carry the lyrics well over a flinty lead guitar push. Bass player Joe Klompus keeps the song moving in a foamy motion and drummer Jeff Allison bumps it along with a hearty persistence. It feels real and its universality could make it a hit on local radio.

“Without Me There” is a somber reflection on letting go of one’s child, letting come what may without a loving mother standing guard. Mendelsohn’s voice captures the bittersweet feeling of separation, celebrating her child’s independence and wherewithal while wondering what might go down without a parental figure at the ready. It’s uncanny how well her range can capture and express ambivalent feelings. It’s the way she lays out her narrative in an upward trajectory, reaching lofty heights, meanwhile connecting with a universal feeling in motherhood that makes this piece standout. Kahn’s lead guitar phrased spreads over all, standing beside the lead vocal with its own tender sprawl.

“Ping In My Belly,” a Latin jazzy excursion is completed with a Latin flavored lead guitar line smoldering in the backdrop, buttressed by Latin trumpet conjured by mellotron. Mendelsohn sings this one with understated grace, a self-restraint that makes her vocal line adorable and fetching. She just lets the band play with out a lively air and colorful sounds while her voice anchors it in something sweetly shy.

Down tempo slow burner, “I Can’t Believe,” finds Mendelsohn’s silky voice flowing with inherent force over a tasteful, restrained lead guitar melody. She turns this tune into a personal anthem by stressing certain words with pause, sustain, and other techniques, giving polite emphasis to her sorrowful reflection of loss. She makes the listener feel the force of what she is feeling and that is the most important mission here.

“In My Veins” keeps things in an emotive slow groove. Mendelsohn recounts a disappointing relationship with someone who didn’t see her full potential or her life’s center of gravity. She sings in a drawling, emphatic manner that give the sense of time. Her soft vocal assertions keep things tender and she contrasts prettily against a slightly darker approach in the instrumentation below her voice. The song is another winner in an album of winners.

Like a lot of the material on this disc, “Rolling Sea” is a hard song to categorize. It cannot be easily pegged into the holes of classic rock, modern country, singer-songwriter, or adult alternative. As always, Mendelsohn’s voice carries itself well amidst tender touches of piano and a heartfelt lead guitar phrase. Her voice moves in and around it all with power and aplomb.

Closing track “Cocoon” allows Mendelsohn to end smoothly with a gentle, tender touch. Her voice, down tempo but as graceful as poetry, caresses the guitar melody she is alongside of. She milks each note for all its worth while making you feel what this song is all about.

Mendelsohn must have had these tune stirring in her soul for many years. This is an incredibly successful debut solo album. Her voice is a shiny vibrant instrument all its own. Her songwriting skills show true giftedness and her backing band do well at holding up all cornerstones of her album. Produced by Ducky Carlisle, Kahn, and Mendelsohn as well as engineered and mixed by Carlisle at his Ice Station Zebra studio in Medford, Massachusetts, the sound in each song has its own special sparkle. Bravo.

SARAH MENDELSOHN, If
–JONATHAN WIDRAN, The JW Vibe

Nothing wrong with being blessed with a famous musical name, even if you’re missing one of the letters of one’s more renowned musical counterpart as celebrated Boston singer-songwriter Sarah Mendelsohn is. It’s close enough that her promotional material can get our attention with a headline like “Not your grandmother’s Mendelssohn!” But on her long awaited full length debut If, there’s no doubt that the depth of her voice, the stylistic diversity of her musical palette (pop, rock, country, reggae/ska, a rap feature, the works) and the poetry of her lyrics makes the attention getting reach to the classical composer quite unnecessary.

Mendelsohn’s emergence with her own dynamic, highly collaborative ensemble comes after years of being in a wide variety of other bands, serving the vision of others but gathering chestnuts of multi-genre inspiration along the way. She’s been a drummer and harmony singer for years around Boston – most recently with the cleverly named Duppy Conquerers, a popular nine-piece Bob Marley tribute band that was put together by Jeff Robinson, one of the singer’s bandmates in Shy Five, the band she co-founded in college and where she cut her teeth as a drummer and songwriter. The Marley connection no doubt inspired one of If’s happiest, quirky and compelling numbers, the brass-fired ska delight “Ping in My Belly.” Mendelsohn’s other endeavors include Paved Country and the kids band Rubber Biscuit.

With that background, it’s clear that Mendelsohn is a well-traveled musical soul who’s done pretty much everything on the road to her powerful breakthrough as a force in indie rock. One of the remarkable aspects of If is the fact that its emotional narrative takes us all the internal places a heart can travel, but in a cool, non-linear, darting, zig zag fashion. Taking hold of our hearts with her emotionally rangy voice, she paints her tales of joy, sorrow, sinking, lamenting, hoping and overcoming as if life is an endless, non-linear river of challenges, defeats, attempts, survival and all the things that make it worth living. Sometimes, as on the opening number, the ominously titled “Drowning,” she’ll underscore the rawness of pain with moments of up-tempo energy (in this case, Caribbean rock flavored), as if to say she’s hurting now but will learn from her mistakes and get things right in the future.

Highlights abound throughout If. A countrified rave up like “Blind Side” belongs right up there with anything Miranda Lambert or any younger female singer in the genre is cooking up these days. It’s a defiant tune about trusting one’s heart over one’s head, damn the consequences you know are going to follow. “No Man’s Land” is a bright, mid-tempo rocker, a colorful story of wistful regret, reflecting those exact consequences when don’t realize you have it all until after you’ve let it go.

One of the more curious (but no less embraceable) tunes is “My Armour Opened,” which features Kabir Son’s lengthy, expository rap. It’s the perfect way to add hipster energy to what is essentially a traditional pop/rocker about pain and trust and the wisdom that comes after the healing. Mendelsohn’s journey involves an ongoing series of life lessons. Long after she emphatically declares, Phoenix-like, that “I Will Rise” no matter what, she’s still tackling the challenges, the crazy unpredictable ups and downs of even a strong relationship on “Roiling Sea.”   

“Anyone who knows Sarah Mendelsohn knows she’s a total pro. She has been a drummer and harmony singer for many years around Boston –most recently with the Duppy Conquerors, a superb Bob Marley tribute act. But she steps out front on her long-awaited debut solo album, “IF.” She sings with a raw, survivor’s emotion on tracks that include stately ballads and sturdy country, rock and island-flavored tunes, while adding rapper MC Kabir for extra panache on the inspiring “My Armour Opened.”  Mendelsohn gets knocked down in the opening “Drowning,” but is back with renewed optimism in “I Will Rise,” with the irrepressible lyric: “I may stumble and I may cry … and if I get knocked down, I will rise.” Simple sentiments, but sung with grace and strength. There’s much on this album to suggest a welcome, not-to-be-denied debut.”
 
 — STEVE MORSE, former staff music critic at the Boston Globe for 28 years who now teaches a Rock History course for Berklee College of Music

SARAH MENDELSOHN/If: A singer/songwriter with a strong presence in Boston brings a modern take on 70s divorcee pop that hit’s the target and might serve as a road map for millennials feeling dissatisfied with current tine and tide. A nice high water mark for the genre.

— CHRIS SPECTOR, Editor and Publisher, Midwest Record 

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