Whistling past the graveyard

Monique Barrett gives a vocal performance to die for
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  March 28, 2014

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Why did the Lake Street Dive show next weekend get embiggened from the Port City Music Hall to the State Theatre?

Rachael Price’s voice. For all the accolades that new album is getting, and how catchy “Bad Self Portraits” is as a single, the whole thing hangs on Price’s vocal performance. The pure bravado she evinces, the button hooks she puts on the backs of her syllables, her attention to the detail of every word she utters... these all elevate good songs into tracks you put on repeat and listen to loudly in the car. While the songwriting is nothing special — lots of genre-hopping, standard songs about relationships and nostalgia — luckily, a great vocal performance can be enough.

Just ask Monique Barrett. With her first EP, Steps, released earlier this month, she delivered on all the promise that was teased two years ago on her debut recorded work as part of the To the Moon, to the Stars compilation. Quite simply, she can sing like crazy.

A nimble, clean, and powerful vocalist, it’s unsurprising a dozen or so musicians and engineers lined up to help her produce the five tracks here. Despite this approach of recording in differing spots, with different engineers and instrumentalists, the songs hold together well, the vision is never muddled, and the various instruments employed (mostly acoustic, in flavors of folk, gospel, and early blues) serve their purpose well: as a platform for Barrett to showcase her considerable vocal talents.

Boy, she can whistle, too. Truly, the whistle break that finishes “For the Best,” the first track on Steps, is among the best I’ve ever heard, with real timbre and body to match Robin Jellis’ cello, before Barrett complements it with a touch of falsetto late in the longish song. The phrasing is sometimes like Joni Mitchell on Blue, but Barrett is never that bracing, and when she sings, “understand, I do it all for you,” there might be a few folks thinking more of Bryan Adams. Like all of the songs here, the lyrics are passionate, heartfelt, and emotionally vulnerable.

Seriously, though, the whistling. Barrett uses it again on “Take Your Name” to evoke spaghetti western, with Eric Bettencourt doing a walking bass and Seth Kearns backing it up with a chattering snare. There’s an unexpected surprise in the songwriting here, too, when the pace ramps up after the second verse, “when it’s clear you don’t care about me.”

Any hint of self-pity gets rolled right into spite. The piece is sultry in the right ways, not lounge-singer cheesy, but easy and come-hither.

Similarly, Jeremy Fink’s organ work on “What Would You Do” may not be pyrotechnic, but it’s tasteful and mood-setting, providing a gospel flavor and a playfulness evinced by a trill into the organ’s second phrase.

Maybe the lyrics are a bit hokey here, with some southern costuming in lines like, “Oh, I been waiting here, all night long/ But I know, he ain’t comin’ round no more,” but the care with which Barrett treats each word in the finishing run out is a thing to behold. A listener might even long for her to get more subtle, emphasizing the dynamic interplay between her voice on full blast and a spoken whisper of vulnerability: “Oh, it’s times like these, when I feel all alone.”

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