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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: Julia Crowe - Smoke & Steel

Julia Crowe - Smoke & Steel
2009, Seiskor

Chicago native and current New Yorker Julia Crowe is not your typical guitar goddess. Classically trained, Crowe brings fingerstyle to electric blues, electronica, rock and any other musical tale that happens to cross her path. Crowe is acknowledged as one of the most original and unique guitar players in the world, honored with the American Composer's Forum Encore Grant. Crowe also has written articles for Classical Guitar Magazine, Acoustic Guitar Magazine, Guitar Player, FRETS, Mel Bay's Guitarsessions, Down Beat and Soundboard. Crowe shows her true colors on Smoke & Steel, her outstanding new album. Each track was recorded in one take with no overdubbing. None was needed.

Crowe steps off with the title track, Smoke & Steel, mining a variegated blues riff as inspiration for a bit of musical day-dreaming. Smoke & Steel has a distinct freestyle aesthetic that's more like eavesdropping on Crowe's thoughts than a structured composition. Rotten Tomatoes & Cheap Socks delivers on the back of some shred-worthy pick work that plays like a tempest in a teapot. The blues influence in Crowe's guitar work is very clearly felt here although there is a sense that the work is so inward focused it might border on inaccessible to all but the most intense of guitar noodlers. Black Feathers gets into some heavy hammer work with ethereal effects thrown in for an Eddie Van Halen meets Bill Laswell feel that's as intriguing and at least as bizarre as that might sound.

Ace's Four Vagabonds leans a bit toward rock structure at times, but stays firmly in the noodle column while exploring themes that evaporate the instant they're uttered. Enniscorthy has a vaguely Michael Hedges feel about it, played in an almost acoustic-ambient fashion that borders on the sort of material Windham Hill became famous for. Red Tug is blues/rock riff gone wild that sounds like it might have originated from a band like ZZ Top at their most down & dirty. The guitar work of Crowe is outstanding. Leaves finds Crowe in a more contemplative place, with subtle progressions and quiet moments interspersed between moments of angst and ambivalence. Sid's Swagger is an occasionally halting bit of free-form improv that fails to make a significant impact on the listener, although to be certain Crowe is technically very precise. Roses Of Crimson Fire will keep the listener very busy sorting through the maze of sounds but fails to offer anything significant to the musical monologue built by Crowe; much the same can be said for Tennessee Turk and Pewter Sky, the closing tracks.

Julia Crowe is technically proficient throughout Smoke & Steel, but ultimately the experience is like listening to someone noodle on guitar for the better part of an hour. There's little structure and little sense of where any particular piece might go. Crowe recorded this album all on her own with no other musicians; the result is an album where self-indulgence has bloomed un-checked in the writing/recording process. No boundaries and no structure can be a powerful tool in the hands of a genius. Julia Crowe has great chops on the guitar, but the creative aspect is sorely lacking on Smoke & Steel. Other musicians; perhaps even someone else to write and build song structure with would bring out the best in Julia Crowe. The accessibility here is small.

Rating: 2 Stars (Out of 5)

You can learn more about Julia Crowe at, or You can purchase Smoke & Steel at

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