Gregg Stewart - Twenty Sixteen (2017)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

Gregg Stewart’s tenure as front man for the indie rock act Stewboss ideally set him up to get a good reception with his first solo album released in March of this year and he’s kept busy since then following it up with this new release months before the year concludes. Twenty Sixteen foregoes his usual collection of originals in favor of covers, but this isn’t the usual cover album either working as a tribute or else hinting at some sort of creative block for a songwriter. Twenty Sixteen, instead, mines the tragically extensive list of musicians and songwriters who died in 2016 and picks songs from their discographies that Stewart responds to in some meaningful way. The result is a collection full of low-key surprises, deep cuts that casual fans of the artists may not be familiar with, and an overall feeling of an artist who is revealing something to us of himself even through other people’s songs.

We get our first earful of those qualities with the opener “You Spin Me Around”, a huge 80’s hit for Dead Or Alive and their legendary front man Pete Burns. Stewart hits all the key points of the song that are instantly recognizable for fans, but he gives the performance a twist not present in the original by dialing back the musical intensity in favor of an acoustic setting. His version of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” centers the bulk of listener’s musical focus on the central melody, conveyed by keyboards with an exquisitely light touch, and supported by jangling acoustic guitars. Stewart’s voice is a very different instrument than Prince’s, obviously, but he brings the same sort of musical touch to the words while singing them in a little bit more of a straight forward manner than what the Purple One did. “If I Could Only Fly”, a cover of Blaze Foley’s song for country legend Merle Haggard, abandons the genre touches present in Haggard’s version and, instead, embraces the song as a straight forward folk song lightly adorned with organ and some lovely harmony vocals.

“Pure Imagination” covers an unlikely source, actor Gene Wilder’s foray into music, and recasts the tune as a languid, dreamy track with a dollop of echo added to the vocal and some lush instrumentation that never goes too far or plays it too safe. “Out in the Parking Lot” interprets one of Guy Clark’s most famous songs and stays closer to the original than most, though Stewart opts for playing things even lower key than Clark does in his performance. The album concludes with his cover of David Bowie’s “Starman” and one of the most obvious differences, the acoustic trajectory of the song, leaps out immediately and means listeners are treated to something truly special with a difficult artist to cover. Some singers/writers aren’t as problematic – their style is a less defined, intricate thing, but Bowie is more of a chore to cover because everything he did was so idiosyncratically his own. Stewart pursues a slightly hallucinatory vibe with the song, but keeps it on a tight leash and just that added dash of extra color is enough to distinguish it from the raft of Bowie tributes and covers following his death. Twenty Sixteen is a special listening experience, undoubtedly one that will never be repeated, and Gregg Stewart’s mildly audacious willingness to go in this direction for his sophomore solo effort reminds us what an unique figure he is on the modern music scene.