Release Date: June 29th 2018
Nostalgia is a real bag of mixed emotions; it can make us feel enthused, confident, wise, isolated or sad. It often hits us at unexpected moments and frequently changes over time; certain nostalgic aspects also seem to have odd ways of connecting together throughout our lives. Chicago-based singer/songwriter Kevin Conroy understands the nature of nostalgia all too well and effectively portrays its changing and connected characteristics through his confidently-crafted debut album ‘Let It Heal’.
‘Old Thunder’ confidently kicks things off, opening the album with some interesting antiphonal interplay of the main scat-sung hook between the lead vocal line and piano over gentle strummed chords. I felt this had strong connotations of childhood, youth and innocence, which serves as an appropriate opening to an album set in nostalgia. Whilst Conroy delivers the lyrics in a very gentle and folky manner, there’s an unmistakable story-telling quality to his delivery and there’s a real sense of ambition in his voice as he tells us tales of remembering being young and full of life. There’s a great eerie synth line that creeps in at key points in the track, which I felt was particularly-well chosen and emotive. His transitions from chest to head voice are excellent and serves as a technique I’d encourage Conroy to take full advantage of.
‘Keep Your Eyes On The Shore’ tells us of the fluttering heartbeat that often comes with being in the presence of a romantic interest. I felt the extended acoustic intro did a fantastic job of mirroring the vulnerability of the lyrics, giving a real sense of two people meeting. The full band enthusiastically join in around a third of the way through, providing a shuffle beat and drawn out cello lines to form an appropriate accompianment. After listening to the first two tracks, the primary thing that strikes me is that Conroy’s material is really crying out for a great backing vocal arrangement; something not present on these first two tracks. As the arrangement on each track does a fantastic job in lending the majority of the listener’s attention to the vocal track, a suitable backing vocal arrangement on each track would really help to boost the presence of the material and emphasise the key parts of Conroy’s story.
With that being said, ‘Railcar’ confidently kicks off with an impressive set of backing vocals that work phenomenally well against the 3/4 time signature. This validates my initial thoughts and is a ball I’d thoroughly suggest Conroy picks up and runs with across the entirety of his output. Particular praise goes to the bassline in this track, which provides some great melodic variety and harmonic variation to the backing arrangement, whilst still staying locked in with the sparse drum part to keep the band glued together. In addition, I was particularly impressed by Conroy’s conscious return to previous lyrical themes, singing how ‘Once I thought I needed thunder/I believed I needed to rise’, an obvious callback to the title track. This really begins to tie the album together as a solid body of work and makes a listen-through feel like a true journey.
‘Annalisa’ sees the piano take the lead, which is a nice change of pace from the acoustic guitar that led each previous track. The lead vocal line is accompianied by a backing vocal line throughout, which again I felt was perfectly suited to Conroy’s material. At this point, my attention turns to how Conroy’s material would best work in a live setting; the lineup featured on the album presents the material very effectively and I think it would best be presented in an unplugged, intimate setting in which Conroy would be able to explain the meaning behind the music in between tracks.
The title track ‘Let It Heal’ really stood out as an example of the very best of Conroy’s talents. The vocal line is gently delivered and features a great mix of head and chest voice, whilst the opening scat-sung phrase once again calls back to the opening track. This continues to tie the album together and shows Conroy’s developed attention to detail. The vocal production on this track is slightly different, featuring heavy reverb. However, as this track is track is based around seeing a former lover with a new romantic interest, I felt the distant vocal production effectively represented the lyrical material. Additionally, I felt the arrangement on this track was the strongest on the entire album; bass holds down the root notes whist the piano plays inverted chords and cello plays up the octave. This creates a fantastic balance between the instruments and provides a solid foundation for Conroy’s voice; an arrangement style I’d hope Conroy continues to take advantage of in his future work.
‘Recovery’ serves as a short interlude, with Conroy’s vocal track being accompanied by palm muted acoustic guitar in the verses. This opens up into strummed chords with drum accents and drawn-out cello notes in the chorus, which shows great contrast for a track that’s under two minutes long. The interlude effectively serves as the perfect precurser to the albums’s finale, which comes in the form of the six and a half minute epic ‘How The Wildflower Grows’. This track takes a great turn at the midway point, successfully decieving all expectations and changing time signature from 3/4 to 4/4, a notoriously difficult thing to execute and something that provides a great change of pace. The track eventually transitions back to 3/4 and leaves Conroy to conclude the lyrical themes on his own, bringing the thematic aspect of the entire album full-circle and showing the completion of the healing process.
One thing I feel is worth noting is that more or less every track on the album opens with a section sung by Conroy accompampanied by acoustic guitar, before introducing the full-band arrangement and growing over the course of the track. Whilst this is an effective arrangement in itself, I’d strongly encourage Conroy to continue to experiment a range of arrangement formats, possibly considering opening with the full band and dropping back to solo acoustic guitar at a later point on a future track. This would lead to a much greater variety in his material and keep his audience on their toes for each song.
Overall, ‘Let It Heal’ is unmistakeably wrapped in nostalgia and the album truly feels like a journey. Conroy showcases an excellent singing style and has a real knack for writing lyrics that connect across the album. The current backing lineup works well with his material and I’m looking forward to seeing how Conroy develops his arranging over the course of his solo career. Highly recommended for any acoustic or folk lovers.