Steph MacPherson plays it safe

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April 17, 2013

Steph MacPherson
Bells and Whistles (Cordova Bay Records, 2012)

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak

Victoria Singer-Songwriter Steph MacPherson is up for three VIMA’s this year: BC-wide artist of the year, Island artist of the year, and Island pop/rock album of the year, for 2012’s Bells and Whistles. MacPherson has been working hard since 2009 to develop her own brand of infectious, radio-friendly folk-pop and is rightly gaining more notoriety for her efforts.

Bells and Whistles is Steph MacPherson’s debut full-length and was released in Canada last April, and in the United States this January. It’s an album that solidifies MacPherson’s direction and musical intent firmly in the mainstream, for better or worse, and demonstrates her ability to consistently write hooky and accessible songs. Bells and Whistles is exquisitely produced–I could not find one technical error throughout the course of the album. Her voice is perfect and mixed well, and her backing band and arrangements are equally tight–a clearly curated vision of a solid pop album made manifest.

I envy and honour MacPherson’s work ethic and her polish. At the same time, this is an album I can’t really dig into. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t offer much beyond the surface. It’s catchy and some of her lines were rotating in my head for days, but during the same period of listening to Bells, I was tethered to a host of other acclaimed albums, including: Lianne La Havas’ Is Your Love Big Enough, Wake Owl’s Wild Country, and Brian Blade Fellowship’s Perceptual. Comparing albums across genres is a dangerous move, but necessary I feel. And Bells and Whistles didn’t stand up. My attention went elsewhere. Maybe it’s because every song on the record sounds mostly the same, or doesn’t satisfactorily address themes of real depth, or because MacPherson’s voice is just a bit too affected (read: Sarah MacLachlan). There’s no room for mistakes, for the human quality, for vulnerable edge, that elusive puzzle piece I found on the other albums mentioned above.

Steph MacPherson could take her obvious well of talent to the feet of Neko Case or Kathleen Edwards and really learn to integrate her hooks and charm into something original and compelling. Bells and Whistles borders on an alternative country sound much of the time; I think she would do well to push it over the line. How would a Randy Travis or George Fox-produced sophomore LP from MacPherson sound, for example? Or a dusty, open and unhindered live-to-tape approach? I wonder if MacPherson has listened to Nebraska. Can someone get this woman a 4-track?

Bells and Whistles is a good album. And that’s just it. I long to see the gritty side of MacPherson—the dangerous, the unreserved—in future releases. If MacPherson can let herself go just a little bit, she’ll be onto something fresh and original. Feist’s Monarch wasn’t exactly a portent of what was to come either, so I remain hopeful, if not slightly impatient.

Noah Cebuliak is a Montréal-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who leads the indie-folk-pop trio Ghost Lights. He independently released his debut EP in November 2012. Check out

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