Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 5/5
Letitia VanSant writes fine songs and delivers them in a voice that first demands, then holds your attention. The grit and rasp of experience mixes with a beautifully phrased delivery, like the burr on a country violin or the crackle in Stan Getz’s low drawn out saxophone notes. There are the captivating high notes of Jewel Kilcher and a little of the Beatnik world weariness of Ricki Lee Jones. On melancholic anthems like “Come Sit by My Fire” and “Taking Back the Reins”. VanSant offers masterful exercises in less is more production and arrangements. Letitia’s guitars and minimal splashes of other instruments garnish that stunning voice and her strong writing. Songs like “Where I’m Bound” and “Bluebird” offer writing so confident and erudite that they flow like well-travelled classics or covers. “Gut it to Studs”, the album title track, bursts with rich and personal imagery. In a building metaphor Letitia describes the confidence needed to start again, by removing everything but the bare bones and firm foundations. A vaguely creepy but inspired set of enthralling metaphors. “Gut it to the Studs” is an apt description possibly of VanSant herself, who with a degree in Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues, years of experience in progressive advocacy, fired up by the power of music to move and motivate, left the nine to five to become a musician. There is a modest assurance in the players around VanSant, they offer atmosphere and texture rather than widdly, showy histrionics. Gut it to the Studs is a better album for Alex Lacquement’s lyrical jazzy upright bass and Dan Samuels’ minimal but tight percussion on the beautiful “Bluebird” and “For What it’s Worth”. Their superb playing provides the trapeze and safety net, between which Letitia’s voice just soars. Listen out too for Patrick McAvinue’s atmospheric Country fiddle on the first two tracks. Letitia VanSant’s conviction that ‘we are in this political crisis in part because we have a lot of spiritual work to do’, that people need to ‘think deeply about our priorities to confront our fears’ informs the album’s one cover, a version of Stephen Stills iconic LA protest “For What it’s Worth”. Her soulful, smouldering version just crackles with heat and tension as West Coast Folk Rock protest goes spiritual. “Wild Heart Roam” is an exercise in perfect minimalism, with some atmospheric guitar and Letitia’s vocals stretching out to hold you till breaking point. “Dandelion”, against freeway noise, runs with Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”’s lyric and sentiment as VanSant evokes the 60s anthem in the first verse, rails against blind stupid consumerism, but delightfully manages to find green shots of hope and a movement building against the asphalt desert. Closing track “Sundown Town” is a song for people who aren’t green shoots, trapped in their homes by their fear, watching others struggle for freedom. Final, uncomfortable food for thought. Letitia VanSant takes the back road, real life, lifeblood music of rural America, and through the force of her sparkling song writing, ‘stop the traffic’ voice and sterling band, burnishes it till it shines, presenting a captivating album that really delivers.