Elizabeth Shepherd: “Heavy Falls the Night”

If Elizabeth Shepherd comes out of the gate with a slight disadvantage, it’s strictly incidental: She’s a female singer/songwriter who plays piano and might casually be referred to as “jazzy”—and in a post-Norah Jones world, certain comparisons are inevitable. But the similarities exist only on paper. Shepherd and Jones may start from the same foundation but they come at it from two totally different angles, and Shepherd’s Heavy Falls the Night is an album of such elegance and sophistication that it rather quietly but confidently asserts itself as the superior to anything Jones or any of her peers have yet released.

That’s not a small achievement—Jones is no hack, with four fine studio albums under her belt—but consider this: When she debuted with Come Away with Me, her success came in large part because she was perceived to be a little too pop for jazz, and a little too jazz for pop. Shepherd double dips: Her album is truer to jazz roots than anything Jones has made, but it’s also purer in its pop sensibilities.

Maybe it’s because everything she has came to her second-hand; Shepherd grew up in a fairly conservative household where the only music allowed was instrumental, sacred, and Anne Murray. Her album comes with references to the Salvation Army, and one assumes that’s where Shepherd eventually pursued much of her independent music education, mining dusty old bins of jazz and folk, soft rock and cabaret. She’s taken everything she knows from stuff that’s used, perhaps even a tad worn out—but she’s fashioned them into something her own, and it sounds astonishingly fresh.

The second-hand vibe permeates the album. This is the sound of an artist with limited resources but unlimited resourcefulness, a woman who takes a small and simple instrumental palette and creates a record that is rich in romance and beauty, sensuality and giddy joy, everything enlivened by the fathomless reaches of her stellar songcraft and her instincts for timeless, elegant record-making, as classy and graceful as the chic image on the album’s cover.

“What Else” opens the album and introduced both its sonic palette and its deceptive simplicity. There’s nothing on the track save for the human voice, an upright bass, minimal percussion, and Shepherd’s electric piano, steely and cool where Jones’ acoustic piano is warm and easy to embrace. But Shepherd is no cabaret crooner, something she wastes no time in making clear; she’s equally interested in jazz, funk, and pop, and this cool strutting number riffs on Elton John’s “Your Song” but takes the conceit in another direction; where Bernie Taupin’s lyric had a certain naivete, Shepherd’s is a little bit sassy, and a little bit pissed off.

“The Taking” is something else altogether—a seedy, Beat-style swagger that channels The Heart of Saturday Night through Barry Adamson’s steamy city underbelly. But it isn’t a song about a night of decadence; it’s a memorial to all the women who blazed the trail for a class act like Shepherd to find success in her own independence, and it’s got attitude to spare. When Shepherd does go looking for the heart of a Saturday night, it’s on the title track, a slow and spare song where the romance positively drips from both the lyric and the small ensemble of vocalists—to say nothing of the gloriously sonorous upright bass.

Shepherd is a cool customer, and if her songs are steeped in human emotion and real vulnerability, she’s careful to avoid out-and-out confessional territory, preferring to express herself through her rich craft and pop savvy. And she does have pop instincts to kill for—“Seven Bucks,” her Salvation Army story, is a funky little pop song that sounds totally out of time—but she’s also, at times, seemingly boundless in both her curiosity and her ability; one imagines that she could bang out an album of quiet, jazzy folk songs in her sleep, but instead she dips into live-on-the-floor electronica on “High,” stirring soul jazz, and, at the album’s end, a tip of the hat to Anne Murray in the form of “Danny’s Song”—here turned from treacle into a folk song of simple elegance and heart. It’s another second-hand find that Shepherd makes her own—and thus a flawless way to conclude an album that takes ideas we’ve heard before and takes them in a direction we’ve never been.

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3 responses to “Elizabeth Shepherd: “Heavy Falls the Night””

  1. Thom Jurek says :

    My friend, as fine as this review is, I am rather shocked about the lack of historical context: you made no mention of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell’s Los Angeles session albums such as, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira, or Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and even Court And Spark. Not in the production, but in the structure of the songs, her rhythmic phrasing on the piano is nearly voice-like and squeezes between meters–like Mitchell’s guitar playing. Her vocal phrasing too, echoes Ms. MItchell’s; she has the wry, observant swagger and quick, slurred sting to imbue a lyric with many meanings and striking images that flit by as the music comes into to swoops them away. This is not to take ANYTHING away from the divine Ms. Shepherd, whose records I’ve been coveting for the past four years, it’s simply to put her in a proper musical context and lineage, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Norah Jones.

  2. Josh Hurst says :

    Oh, I entirely agree with you, Thom, about the connections to Joni; and as those are among my favorite Joni albums (especially Court and Spark), the comparison wasn’t lost on me. My invocation of Norah Jones was sort of pre-emptive; my fear is that, in 2010, any female singer who makes music in this mold is going to be compared to Jones by new listeners, so I wanted to confront the comparison head-on– which is not at all to say that I find it to be the most apt comparison for this music, just the most likely one.

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