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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Steph Barrak - Words To Break Your Heart

Steph Barrak – Words To Break Your Heart
2013, Steph Barrak
Steph Barrak is a rare gem.  The Boston-based indie singer/songwriter blends a poetic stream of consciousness lyrical style with an artful melodic sensibility and a distinctive pop pulse.  While Barrak’s desire to write and sing began at a young age, it wasn’t until her college years when she really began to play in public.  Her open mic appearances quickly turned into headline shows.  Barrak spent two years working with producer Mike Davidson to craft her sonic visions into the album Words To Break Your Heart.  The end result is stunning, beautiful and raw, with a living heartbeat you cannot ignore.
Barrak sets sail with “Connecticut”, an engaging take on a failed relationship written in two distinct musical movements.  She manages to come across as articulate and authentic in dissecting her own heartbreak without falling into stereotypical bouts of vitriol.  The catchy folk/pop arrangement will have your toes tapping, and seems like it should have some real commercial punch.  “Painted Face” is a quiet monologue about waiting for the winds to change.  She recognizes the relationship is over, but is waiting around just in case.  Barrak’s chorus is near-perfect, although the song does drag a bit at the end due to repetition.  “Robot” carries with a mild melancholy, written from the perspective of an automaton.  This could be interpreted as commentary on a relationship drifter who engages but never commits or taken at face value.  Either away it’s highly entertaining and musical.
With “Hardwired”, Barrak digs into an ear-friendly bit of 1970’s singer/songwriter panache.  There’s a bit of the melancholy of Mazzy Starr here, but Steph Barrak is pragmatically hopeful in her approach.  The song plays like a lullaby, and Barrak’s warm alto is the perfect salve.  “Fossil Tears” is a post-breakup monologue on the healing process that retains a glint of hope for the hopeless.  This quietly catchy number will get stuck in your grille and stay there.  “Oh Lo Lo” is a bit more pointed in style, with a relentless post-pop sensibility that pulls at the listener.  Here Barrak is focused on her inability to shake her former love.  It’s a nice tune that feels a bit stuck instrumentally, but that’s sort of the point.
There’s a sense of breaking free evident in “Natural Progression”.  This uplifting folk/pop number has a vibrant energy and a memorable melody, as the focus shifts from decay to transformation.  “Drift With It” is a down-tempo take on the same theme, an acknowledgement that things are falling apart.  The go with the flow feel runs all through the arrangement, and Barrak’s dulcet tones frame it all perfectly.  Once again she shows a flair for infectiously hooky choruses that get caught between your ears.  “The Way You Make Me Smile” would seem to be a turning point.  She’s come to peace with the process of decay, understanding its necessary based on the two actors in this little play.  Nevertheless, she tries to wring one last gasp from what was lost.  The mournful country guitar is a nice touch in communicating the mix of heartbreak and wistful hope found in this moment.  She falls back into an utter unwillingness to let go by song’s end.  This parallel of decay creates one of the loveliest sonic moments on the album, with a chorus that you’ll be humming to yourself for ages.
It’s hard to know whether “Married To A Robber” is a continuation of the story line or a jump start, but the former is as plausible as the latter.  Steph Barrak creates a true musical moment here, crafting the beauty of tragedy into musical stone (or is it the other way around?)  In any case, this is a masterful piece of songwriter.  Barrak winds things down with “Watch For Me”, a declaration of civil war, if you will.  She has finally found the words to match the feelings in her heart, and she is ready to fight.  The song carries the power of simple truths, evocatively turned out in a sparse musical arrangement.  What’s most intriguing is Barrak never offers the payoff.  We come to the brink of the final confrontation, but that moment is never revealed. 
You can argue the end of Words To Break Your Heart all you want, but the takeaway is that this is a compelling musical work that is worth arguing over.  Barrak lays her heart bare across eleven songs that convey the ambivalence of needing to get away yet needing to stay.  It’s not the conclusion that is the focus here, however; that is left to the listener’s imagination.  The journey is the thing.  Barrak’s songs are compositionally never more or less than what they need to be to complement the complicated emotions she conveys.  A relationship’s decay plays out to the precipice without closure, but either way you see that the narrator has grown.  Whatever comes, she’ll be okay.  So while we are left to wonder what is next for Steph Barrak, most anyone who hears Words To Break Your Heart will be anxious for the sequel.
Rating:  4.5 Stars (Out of 5)
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