Steven MacDonald has wowed critics and listeners from coast to coast with his work, and in his latest offering Stepping Out of Time, he filters the most alluring qualities in his repertoire and elevates them to previously unreachable heights. Instead of focusing his efforts on improving upon the sound his scene has presented us previously, he reimagines the approach to musicality and aesthetics with this record; the blues tones are more foreboding, the folk themes are polished, and the music feels more observational, honest and personal. Fans who were expecting more of the same might be surprised by how colorful this record is, but those of us who wanted to hear what MacDonald could do in the studio will celebrate this for the watershed moment it truly is.
The title track, “The Chords Wouldn’t Play,” “Any Port,” “The Love I’ve Known,” and “Down the River She Runs” are the blood and guts of the folk component in Stepping Out of Time, and each one of them utilizes a different facet of MacDonald’s dexterous skillset. The namesake song is an intimate confessional that welcomes us into his world from the perspective he sees it - the prose is exciting, and evocative and doesn’t overindulge despite the constant temptation. “The Chords Wouldn’t Play” and “The Love I’ve Known” are much more bittersweet and elegiac in their tone, emphasizing his sensitive side, while on the other hand “Down the River She Runs” and “Any Port” are self-assured and pragmatic both structurally and creatively.
While I wouldn’t go as far as to ever describe this guy as a plain singer/songwriter, there’s an undeniable influence of Americana over Stepping Out of Time that is most noticeable in its first three songs. We get rolling with the title cut, a song that is steeped in vinyl-era valley grooves and doesn’t mind employing a familiar story as its central theme, and immediately jump into “Everything Starts From Nothing,” which doesn’t cosmetically fit in with contemporary folk but when broken down to nuts and bolts is tantamount to anything the genre’s best acts have produced in recent years. This layer is an important one if for no other reason than to finish the Americana-inspired framework that this album wears with pride, and I think it also aids in the mainstream accessibility of the more relaxed material.
There’s quite a rock n’ roll bloodline flowing through Stepping Out of Time’s foundation, and it rears its head firmly in the unspoken swing of “Empty Shell.” Like “A Rush” and the more subtle “A Rush,” “Empty Shell” fashions its string melodies burning hot and dangerously nimble, which contributes a spiciness to this record that is more than searing enough to keep pop-inclined listeners glued to their speakers. It’s a nice touch that despite the unpredictability of these tracks, there’s connective stitching in the tone that makes them feel like they belong together (which is a rather big concern when making a record as ambitious in design as this one).Stepping Out of Time is the antithesis of fractured pop LPs; it’s an amalgamation of all-American styles of play compressed into a glowing, radiant folk record by a rising star in the roots music scene.
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