If the holiday shopping feeding frenzy passed you by and now you’re late to the gate in purchasing a present for your more musically inclined friends, here are two album collections worth pulling out your charge card.
Both seem polar opposites in style and genre; one is a spare, acoustical album of holiday music organically created in Seattle by noted Northwest folksinger-songwriter Michael Tomlinson. The other is a debut pop-fueled effort by young Grace VanderWaal. If you don’t recall the name, she’s the winner of last year’s America’s Got Talent competition who made memorizing the lyrics to her song “I Don’t Know My Name” de rigueur for tween and teenage girls.
But the two do share commonality in a couple of ways: both write their own original material in genre-blurring fashion. Both songwriters aren’t afraid to lyrically delve into the state of the human condition, in a manner that rises above the formulaic romance-gone-asunder themes prevalent in mainstream pop music.
In the mid-1980s, Tomlinson gained a measure of fame in the Pacific Northwest and parts elsewhere with his gentle blend of folk and pop music featuring soaring, introspective lyrics influenced by the area’s majestic display of trees, rain and mountains. Since his start, the music and radio industries have gone through radical changes in the intervening years. As a result, airplay and record deals for independent artists is a vanquished commodity. Tomlinson’s career was impacted by the change, as well.
The Texas-born troubadour has persevered and has divorced himself from the cutthroat national music business. He now has complete control of his music library and produces and distributes his own albums. The most recent in his 13-album collection, “Songs of the Season,” is being sold solely through Tomlinson’s website, michaeltomlinson.com, where it can be downloaded or ordered for CD mail delivery.
Album review: “Songs of the Season,” Michael Tomlinson
Tomlinson produced and recorded this album at his Seattle home in quick fashion, without musical accompaniment or backup singers, after the singer-songwriter had an epiphany as the holiday season approached: In response to a difficult year for America, he felt compelled to “create music for the holiday season that was inspiring, uplifting and reassuring,” he wrote on his website.
Tomlinson succeeded on all counts. The album has a mix of classical Christmas favorites, including “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “What Child Is This?” and “Auld Lang Syne,” as well as his own penned tunes, most notably “The Snow and the Wind,” “Winter Ride” and “Winter’s Call.”
The songwriter has put his own folksy imprint on the old holiday classics, including a lovely version of “Angels We Have Heard On High” and an up-tempo “Silent Night.” Newer songs he wrote, including the melancholy “Winter’s Call” and “Falling Snow,” are the album’s best cuts. Tomlinson also has a cheery acoustic rendition of his late ’80s original song, “On Christmas Day,” which he performed onstage at the Admiral Theatre in Bremerton for a KING-TV holiday several years ago.
Standout songs: “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “Winter’s Call” and “Falling Snow”
VanderWaal was labeled “a musical prodigy” by Rolling Stone earlier this year because of her preternatural songwriting abilities and unique, raspy vocal intonation. Just 13, the Kansas-born and Suffern, New York-raised teen has demonstrated an instinctive feel for music and how its emotional power can move audiences.
Her televised audition on AGT last year was an immediate hit with the judges and overwhelmed the theater’s audience. Breezing through the later stages of the competition and finally capturing the $1 million winner’s prize, VanderWaal immediately signed a deal with celebrity judge Simon Cowell’s Syco Music, then soon produced a chart-climbing EP record for Columbia Records last year, “Perfectly Imperfect,” which included the self-penned songs she made famous on AGT.
Since then, the precocious musical artist has been on a whirlwind ride that’s included trips to Japan, personal appearances around the nation, and a slate of musical performances in person and on television. Two weekend concerts at the influential Austin City Limits Music Festival in October attracted large crowds to her breakout performances and garnered favorable reviews from music critics.
Self-assured, endearing and charismatic, the youngster has been fascinating to watch this year as she quickly evolves into not only a polished stage performer but a more mature, introspective songwriter. It likely has been an intimidating and daunting journey so far for VanderWaal, but her close-knit family, managers and producers obviously have kept her on-course and even-keeled throughout the adventure. She’s now at the start of her first multi-city tour, wisely booked in smaller venues while the young performer continues to gain confidence on stage and grow as an artist.
Seattle is the final stop on her sold-out national tour. She will perform at Neumos on Feb. 23.
Album review: “Just The Beginning,” Grace VanderWaal (Syco Music/Columbia Records)
Grace VanderWaal’s debut album is an ambitious, thoroughly satisfying collection of songs that could very well be called “Evolution.” Her teen angst pleas of “Sick Of Being Told” and “Talk Good” speak of the early Grace struggling with authority and asserting her newly found power, to the more profound statements voiced in “Moonlight” and “A Better Life.”
Her producers, including Shawn Mendes producer Ido Zmishlany, could easily have steered her into Taylor Swift territory with an assortment of radio-friendly, spiteful boy-bashing chart pleasers, but VanderWaal bravely ventured into riskier territory by recording a few somber, more meaningful efforts that display her maturing songwriter chops. As a result, her album is not only a debut triumph but an impressive, well-crafted and polished pop collection — period.
The album’s lead song, “Moonlight,” is an emotional remembrance of a life shattered by depression. Its calypso beat belies the lyrics’ sad backstory. “Just The Beginning” offers the album’s second highlight, the urban-infused, driving “So Much More Than This,” a techno-pop admonishment to turn off your phone, open your eyes, realize that life “is what it is” and to live it authentically.
The delicate, ephemeral “Florets” is a triumph of lyrics and melody, expertly crafted into a series of soaring daydream crescendos. It’s a guaranteed earworm.
VanderWaal’s hidden masterpiece on the album is “Darkness Keeps Chasing Me,” a beautiful, chilling ballad that showcases the budding musical artist’s multi-talented musical repertoire. The song will likely never achieve airplay because of its heavy emotional bearing, but it nevertheless demonstrates her growing maturity as a songwriter and willingness to be a risktaker as an artist. It exudes raw emotion through the lyrical protagonist’s plaintive pleas amidst the pain of depression and longing, sung exquisitely by VanderWaal.
The album’s only disappointment is not what’s in it, but what was left out. Two songs, “Lungs” and “Hope For Change,” were added to a deluxe version of the album sold exclusively through a national retailer. Perhaps they weren’t initially included in the regular release because producers felt the more sophisticated lyrics would skew closer to an adult audience. Whatever the reasons, the two songs, particularly “Lungs,” are finely crafted efforts that should be included in Grace’s followup album.
Standout songs: “Florets,” “Moonlight,” “So Much More Than This” and “Darkness Keeps Chasing Me”