CD Review of Queen of This Mess by Angie Stevens
Angie Stevens: Queen of This Mess
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Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash
Boss Koala
Angie Stevens:
Queen of This Mess

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


nce upon a time – before, say, the mid-‘90s – most musicians with any kind of name value tended to eschew the benefits of having their songs played on TV; aside from the occasional bit of stunt casting – and, of course, MTV or "Saturday Night Live" – shilling one’s wares on the boob tube was seen as selling out. It happened every so often, of course, but usually as an act of desperation by a fading artist – like when Christopher Cross used a Very Special Episode of "Growing Pains" to plug his latest single in 1988 – and it wasn’t really until Vonda Shepard started popping up on "Ally McBeal" that the sellout stigma started to fade.

These days, of course, television shows use original music by real live recording artists all the time, even if they don’t draw from a terribly eclectic selection; in fact, things have gotten to the point where reading that a musician’s work has been used on television is a pretty reliable indication that said musician falls squarely into the "sensitive, sad singer/songwriter" camp – and all of the above is an extremely roundabout way of saying that even though Angie Stevens has had her music featured on "Big Love," and has signed a deal allowing MTV the use of her songs for its original programs, she doesn’t fit the Fray-shaped mold used by shows like "Grey’s Anatomy."

Actually, in a lot of spots on her latest release, Queen of This Mess, Stevens sounds an awful lot like Patty Griffin (not at all a bad thing, by the way). Both artists have a fondness for somber, darkly beautiful ballads – and both have been gifted with bright, clear vocals that can go, in the space of a few lines, from dusky and quavering to loud as a church bell on a clear Sunday morning. Queen also highlights a certain sonic similarity between Stevens and Griffin, thanks to the tasteful Nashville imprint left by Malcolm Burn’s production; this set is heavy on the acoustic guitar, with just the right amount of organ, accordion, harmonica, and piano to fill in the gaps.

The album starts off strong with "Hold Me Close," a plaintive love song with spare, cascading piano fills and the soothing message that "all we have is time…all that’s left is time," and keeps on rolling with the title track – an organ-laced number with plenty of room for Stevens to wail – followed by the lovely ballad "Coming Home" and "This Time Around," a tough-skinned mid-tempo belter that offers a nifty tip of the hat to Nico. In fact, Queen doesn’t really let up until the fifth track, "Accidentally Smiling," a heartfelt-yet-boring slow number.

Here’s where a lot of albums would lose their momentum for good, but Queen proves a nice exception, roaring back with the handclaps, harmonica, and swirling organ of "Give It on Back" and the soft, sweet "The River," a folk ballad that flows as peacefully as its namesake. It’s on the ballads, really, that Stevens really shines – particularly on "The Current That Carries," which adds a touch of rural gospel to the mix, and the closing track, "Ship Song," which uses a simple piano melody to help capture the quiet strength and fragile beauty at the heart of her musical appeal.

If there’s a genuine bum track on Queen of This Mess, it’s "Anything," a straight country duet that, because it starts off with the male vocals – and sounds like it should be coming out of the speakers at a rib joint – may leave some listeners wondering if there was a mix-up at the mastering plant. It isn’t a bad song, just one that sounds decidedly out of place here, and the album wouldn’t have suffered without it. All things considered, though, this is an extremely minor complaint – and for fans of thoughtful, heartbreakingly beautiful folk/pop, this Queen will provide the proverbial royal treatment.

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