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Annie Stela
Capital Records

A star is born, and her name is Annie Stela.

The young songstress' debut album Fool isn't without error. But when it's right, it's so right. She's also one hell of a piano player and wrote every song on Fool herself. So mark my words: fame is just around the corner from this lovely young lady.

Fool starts with the radio-friendly "It's You." Here Stela impresses with her ethereal, Sarah McLaughlin-like vocal melodies, balanced nicely by an earthy blend of mandolins, simple piano progressions, and a foot-stomping rhythm section. Though not Fool's best track, "It's You" is a pleasant listen nonetheless.

The album immediately takes a different turn with the dreamy piano jazz of "Keep Me Around." Stela strikes the piano with the kind of quick-chord aggression that made Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine such a masterpiece. And like Fiona's orchestrations, Ms. Stela paints the song with child-like mischief, creating a sound recalling carousel rides and Roald Dahl books. Lyrically however, "Keep Me Around" stands firm with a mature, "take it or leave it" wisdom differing greatly from the trembling ex-lover angst that Fiona does so perfectly. As Stela sings, "A list of my qualities to look over if you want, I'm trying to please ya/But if you won't I guess you won't." And what are those qualities? As she lists, "My smile has its ups and downs, but I'm generally a laugh/And you can bet I won't skip town, and leave you with the aftermath." Now that's the kind of honesty you won't find on match.com. Thus, it's hard to disagree with the advice Stela confidently gives to her indecisive crush on the chorus: "Keep me around, keep me around/I'm good for you."

Another fabulous moment on Fool is the soul-powered "Counting Backwards." What makes this song so wonderful is its unpredictability. Stela begins with a lone and heartbroken piano progression, a mood mirrored by her vocals. She sings, "And the medal goes to you, my life is falling apart, my life is falling apart." Love has left her lonely, angry. She's left with only her confusion and a present dependent on the past for answers she still can't find, singing "every time I turn around I'm backtracking." Suddenly, a soulful female choir comes out of nowhere, gracing Stela's confusion with the kind of "Woh's" that would make Aretha Franklin proud. Violins and subtle "wah wah" pedal guitar grooves recalling the Bee Gees awaken listeners into a world that Stela, regardless of her confusion, finally has control over. Her vocals win back the confidence empowering her on earlier tracks. Freeing herself of the self-deprecating doubt and undeserved blame that the opening verses trapped her in, she belts out, "Oh just a couple streets away you sleep through the night/You're all out of things to say/Honey that don't feel right." And though the subject matter of this song does not require too much lyrical depth (just a whole lot of attitude), Stela gets caught up enough in the emotion and poetry of past memories to pen such winning lines as, "My heart is going back to the choice I could have made/to the balcony at night and the blanket of black." It's a tremendous song; you can actually hear her becoming a star.

"Counting Backwards" is followed by the clever piano-rocker "Lovesong." Bursting with clever hooks and quick-paced vocal memories, Stela's opening lines and chorus sing, "This is the lovesong you'll never hear/just a warm breeze between my mouth and your ear." It's one of the most infectious lines I've heard since Gnarls Barkley's Cee-lo asked, "Does that make me crazy?"

The albums only drawbacks are a couple songs that come too close to schmaltz. One example is "Over You." The song sounds pretty enough. But on an album chock full of honest and remarkable tracks just waiting to be heard, lines like "I'll get over you/I just need a night, a night to get over you" just do not measure up. Similar disappointments are heard on "Past Due." Here, she sings "It's warm with his skin against my arm/and I can close my eyes against the ways I did you harm." Though a better song, it is similar to "Over You" in that its lyrics do not bear the weight of the song's emotions. It's all fine and good to write about "longing" and the simple desire just to touch someone who's no longer there. A history of Top 40 hits proves this. But what sets Annie Stela's songwriting above mainstream mediocrity, and at the same time gives her the "gusto" necessary to "make it big," is when her performance, lyrics, and emotional content do not overpower each other. And it's been quite some time since I've come across a female singer better able to juxtapose her humanity and her confidence.

An example is the confessional title track. With vocals embodying the best of Alanis Morrisette, she sings, "I'm sure that I am brave and smart/with pleasant smile and open heart/but that doesn't guarantee that I can pick it up all on my own/and prove it through my telephone shouting, 'I'm a big girl look at me.' " As this song shows, Annie is at her best when her failures and virtues are unabashedly sung about it in the same breath. Her worst (and rarest) moments occur when her uniqueness as a songwriter, and as a person, fall silent under the burden of "timeless emotions."

Luckily, the majority of Fool shows the artist's best side. For what it's worth, I think she'll go far. I hope she does. And in saying that, I'd like to close by citing in its entirety the album's best track, "Breathe Through." Doing so is typically a big "no-no" in the world of music journalism. Regardless, this song beautifully reveals why Annie Stela just may be the next Sarah McLaughlin. Or better yet, the next Carol King.

"Breathe Through"
Can I pull this from the air?
Do I have the strength to fight?
Or will I hold my tongue till it passes
through the warm and balmy night

And a mother sets the table
cleans the dishes with her hands
Passed down through the poking and the prodding
and the "don't let this get in the way of your plans"

Oh when it hits me, all I can do
is just breathe again and breathe through (2X)

Can I hope for something more?
Can I hope for something real?
Standing tall in the backyard praying to my trees
for something to feel.

And I hear him pulling up,
I hear the door slamming.
The slow whistle of his cigarette
and all I want is to peel the paint,
the paint from his skin


And I can't let it go, can't let it go.
This is the last time I'll feel it there
I can't let it go because I know
even if I shut my blinds he's still out there.
Still out there

Oh when it hits me, all I can do
is just breathe again and breathe through (2X)
and breathe through and forget the me and the you.

-Justin Stover

Track Listing:
1. Its' You
2. Keep Me Around
3. Fool
4. Over You
5. Counting Backwards
6. Lovesong
7. Believable
8. Past Due
9. I'm Around
10. Breathe Through
11. Pull Back
12. Carry it All

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