What is comfort music? Comfort music is the type of music that goes by without a wink. Inoffensive is the word and hardly does it ever incite an opinion one way or the other. You could put it on when hosting company and never would anyone question the choice, but never would they be likely to ask exactly who it is you are listening to, either. You could drive for 100 miles and not remember when track two became track three, four or five. It’s not that it’s all indistinguishable, per se; it’s just that each track seems to blend so well with one another that a listener’s attention has a tendency to wander easily under the backdrop of the stuff.
Local singer-songwriter Jessica Bowers is awfully good at crafting her own brand of comfort music. Making use of an exceptionally elegant voice, her de facto original soundtrack to the play “I Am (Not) My Mother” is a sonic template for how to successfully compose the exact kind of comfort music that succeeds: Strip it down to an acoustic guitar and a voice. Vary the tempos enough to make sure the formula doesn’t become tired. Rely heavily on the natural talent you were born with to get you from one end to the other. Stir together accordingly, and what you have is the freshest piece of expired fruit — a mix that works beautifully from a competence standpoint, though suffers from its lack of new taste.
The best elements of this particular seven song set deal exclusively with her memorable croon, a tone that pulls from the grace of Judy Collins (as well as locally bred Judy Collins disciple Amy Speace) and the soul of Bonnie Riatt. It’s a beautifully concocted style that is just subtle enough to classify as original, an effective and emotive amalgam of influence and ability.
Balladry serves Bowers well, the perfect platform for a voice that can stretch to sprawling lengths. “Love,” the set’s longest track, is simple in its presentation, a sparse acoustic guitar opening its arms for the warmth that the singer’s voice exudes. She uses the slowed-down feel to her advantage, eventually adding tasteful backing harmonies as the tune’s third act begins to settle in. Her ability to rise up before slouching over is impressive, though whenever she decides to straighten her posture, her strength in command is undeniable. Those who think it’s boring aren’t listening.
“Mama You Lived the Dream” travels back and forth between Simon & Garfunkel guitar picking from collaborator Chris Adams and a surprisingly funky hook that is unquestionably the most accessible the collection gets. The sustained gospel-inflicted vocal layer added underneath the song’s bulk is both smart and telling — not only can Bowers sing, but she also knows her way around a composition’s construction site. “Because of You” kicks up the tempo with success and makes the case for the singer as a rock artist, proving how valuable versatility can be for the sake of an artist’s originality.
The slip-ups come early, but most can be forgiven (patience is key upon first listen because of the set’s tie to the aforementioned play). Both “I Am Not My Mother” and “I’ll Be Your Guide” — the collection’s first two tracks — overlap in theme and presentation, making for a repetitive nature that is just a bit too much to swallow. Criticisms seems unfair, however, when considering the place it presumably had within the context of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre production it accompanied. Still, the constant “I am not my mother” refrain grows real old, real quick, and because of its up-front placement on the release, the entire work’s value immediately launches into question.
But there’s substance on the other end of the rainbow, if you can weather the initial storm that helped create it. “Children,” served up late in the set, might be the most affecting song here as the singer pleads for someone or something to “give her a light.” Short but sweet, the tune watches her veer into the Land Of The Blues with bold intonations and somewhat refreshingly, she never appears lost. The woman can wail when she wants to, and it’s a shame she opts against it throughout the majority of this set. Had she decided otherwise, the inherent comfort found here might have been replaced by something far more interesting than what is produced.
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t quality moments to be found on “I Am (Not) My Mother,” despite how inoffensive it all might feel at times. Underneath the formulaic predictability that occasionally bogs the record down is a voice with real power, real grit, real substance. Who knows if Jessica Bowers is anything like her mother, but then again, who cares? Because the closer she gets to establishing herself as an individual, the closer she might be to finally realizing her fullest potential. These songs are a start, but they also beg the question: What’s next?
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **