Usually when I listen to new music, I immediately start picking it apart. It’s the analyzer in me. In music theory class in college, many of our assignments involved analyzing music, so don’t blame me. I’ve had a difficult time preparing to write this review of Audrey Assad’s The House You’re Building, because I’ve been so overwhelmed by the whole that I’ve been unable to gather any thoughts about the parts. So, in contrast to my review of Taylor Swift’s CD, this will be less detailed.
I discovered Audrey Assad on Chris Tomlin’s Christmas project, on which she recorded “Winter Snow.” (A young musician at our church sang that song in December, and it was very well received. Assad has become a favorite of hers.) I checked out Assad’s debut release and was at once blown away.
First, you should know I dig piano chicks. Partly because I love a great female vocalist and also because I love piano. Here are some I listen to (in no particular order):
- Sara Groves
- Regina Spektor
- Norah Jones
- Fiona Apple
- Tori Amos
- Sarah McLachlan
- Erin McCarley (don’t think she plays piano but features it)
- A Fine Frenzy
- Rachel Yamagata
Assad may be the best vocalist among these great musicians. Of course, her voice itself is beautiful, all smooth and buttery, but a vocalist is more than just a pretty voice. Great vocalists know how to sing. Assad amazes me with her ability to switch between registers seamlessly. Switch is the wrong word. Transition, shift? It’s like the difference between riding with someone who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift and someone driving the best automatic transmission available. (Did I just include a grease-monkey like simile in a music review? What kind of artist have I become?!)
Assad isn’t divaish in her singing, like say Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey. For the most part, her approach is simple, though with the slightest turns and slurs that keep you interested in anticipation. At times she’s so stealthily impressive you don’t realize how difficult some of her melodies are. She reminds me a lot of Patty Griffin, though with a slightly more appealing resonance in her tone—but then, I’m drawn to a somewhat nasal voice, sort of like she just got over a cold.
Assad’s piano drives most of the tracks but guitar also is prevalent. She is quite capable on piano, although her instrument isn’t showcased like her voice. If there is any weakness on this project, it’s the drum programming. I’m assuming some of the songs feature drum tracks, because at times they’re rather poor, almost like these were demo takes and they forgot to re-record them—or call in a better drummer for the final take.
Sometimes the producing is less than desirable. A few tracks feature Assad’s keyboard a la ‘80s piano, all chorusey and layered. Not my favorite sound. Give me an acoustic piano or Rhodes or Wurlitzer (like Norah Jones). Assad is someone I’d like to see in concert with just a piano and maybe an acoustic guitar. I do commend the producer for not burying Assad in background vocals. There is scant another voice.
The songwriting is fantastic. I’m pretty sure Assad composed all the songs with collaborators. Lyrically, there is a depth unexpected of a 20-something. (For more on Assad see an artist profile.) There aren’t any surprises in the chord structures, just what you’d expect to hear. It’s her melodies I’m drawn to and what has kept me listening—a dozen times since I downloaded it.
You should download it too. At $7.99 on iTunes, it’s a steal. Then let me know what you think.