Written by Bradley Johnson, posted by blog admin
Gregg Stewart is full of surprises. One might assume that releasing a successful solo debut and intending on following it up in the same year with your second solo release entailed writing a new slate of songs. Stewart confounds our expectations, however, and shows himself to be a musician willing to follow his muse wherever it leads by, instead, making that second solo release a covers album. It’s, typically, the sort of release we associate with long-standing acts who, entertain themselves playing old favorites after a successful run with their original material. It isn’t what we’re used to, at all, from a indie artist making his first meaningful forays into the music world on his own and not part of a band. Based in California via New Jersey, Stewart organized this collection around selecting songs from the catalogs of artists who died in 2016. Rather than some slightly mournful, solemn retrospective, however, Twenty Sixteen is a sprawling fourteen song collection that draws from rare cuts in the respective discographies of these writers and performers. Stewart makes each song his own.
There’s an artful swagger to his opening version of “You Spin Me Round” that, admittedly, doesn’t match the sheer propulsive forward-motion of Dead Or Alive’s original but definitely assumes its own character. This isn’t some sort of strictly solo effort – Stewart makes unobtrusive use of some first class backing musicians who help him transform these tunes into something uniquely his own. Their ability to straddle a line between re-interpretation and fidelity to the original is seldom better illustrated than it is on their cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”. Stripped of its soft-pedaled psychedelic pop trappings, we’re left with the song’s key melodic phrase and Stewart’s voice to carry the day. These elements, alongside a low fi approach, are more than enough to carry the day. His stylistic range becomes all the more evident on the track “Sing a Song”, authored by Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire fan. This leans much more towards the re-invention side of the artistic ledger, but Stewart never fails to sound anything less than confident and comfortable working in this mode.
Stewart’s avowed purpose with his cover of Leon Russell’s “One More Love Song” is to recall the glories of seminal roots rockers The Band and he does a good job of approximating that sound while still following his own path. It’s certainly the most “rustic”, countrified number on the album. He covers a song from Glen Frey’s solo career with the track “I Found Somebody” and it has the sort of easy melodic rock amble that defined much of Frey’s material. Stewart gives a bright, vibrant vocal performance full of charisma and musicality. The mood takes on a more melancholy, observant edge with his pensive cover of Guy Clark’s “Out in the Parking Lot” and anyone familiar with the Texan songwriter’s art will appreciate the care Stewart takes with both the tasteful musical backing and his affectionately rendered vocal. The album’s penultimate performance covers the iconic Leonard Cohen but, rather than hitting some of the obvious choices like “Bird on a Wire” or other tracks, Stewart pulls “Leaving the Table” from Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker and delivers an impassioned performance for a song that’s, in some ways, more like a prayer set to music than a pop song. Listeners familiar with Stewart won’t find themselves overtly longing for his songwriting instead; Gregg Stewart, instead, owns these tracks as if they came from his pen. Twenty Sixteen is a great release.