Those are the first 12 words you hear on Lynn Hollyfield’s latest politely pedestrian set, “In the Balance.” They come as a quick hi-hat pitters and patters, a pleasant piano provides pacification and Hollyfield’s acoustic guitar plucks along at an Adult Contemporary pace. That’s a lot of p’s for one paragraph, yes, but all of them fail to reach to the only real P that matters in this equation: peaceful.
Why? Because that’s precisely what “In The Balance” is — 12 songs of soft-soft rock that cater to a crowd not quite hip enough to geek out each time their favorite NPR program comes on, yet not quite boring enough to sit around anticipating the next PBS pledge drive. It’s soccer mom music for soccer moms who only recently began to care about gluten. The stuff’s not bad; it’s just not particularly interesting.
Take “Shadow” or “New Beginning” as examples. The former, a tiny song backed by little more than Hollyfield’s acoustic guitar, is the singer’s depiction of parenthood set to an approach that would make even Shawn Colvin blush. The intentions seem pure, of course, but as for its translation into intriguing folk-pop? Well, that’s a hard line for Hollyfield to successfully navigate. “New Beginning” then takes the same formula and adds a reference to school ending as well as an ever-important penny whistle. There’s nothing wrong with writing Mom Rock, but why she refuses to at least try to make it sound compelling is beyond logical comprehension.
Things pick up with songs like “Fear the Wind,” “Cul De Sac” and “Inside Out” if only because the backing instrumentation increases. “Wind” makes up for at least a handful of transgressions with its dark atmosphere and a hook that sticks with you for a little while. It’s one of the few times Hollyfield sounds awake. “Cul De Sac” and “Inside Out” could both soundtrack the saddest part of your favorite Lifetime movie, the second of the two providing the most complete moment on the record, a full-blown cello giving the production a full texture that serves it well.
If there’s anything that might be labeled a saving grace, it’s the singer’s raw talent as a vocalist. Her voice is rich with depth and that baritone croon goes much further than one might expect. Many of the tracks here echo fellow D.C.-area artist Laura Baron, who, too, was blessed with uniquely thick textures deep within her vocal stylings.
Actually, the best moments on “In the Balance” come when Hollyfield kicks off her shoes and takes the same world(ish), jazz(ish) route that her contemporary did on her most recent set, “Heart of the Great Unknown.” “Spring” is a fun jaunt that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1940s jazz club with its prominent ukulele and vaguely swinging groove. Much like Baron, Hollyfield’s voice plays above these backdrops better than they do anywhere else. It’s a wonder why she doesn’t explore that side of her artistry more often.
Instead, we get the folky “Mostly Wild,” which despite its strong accordion, never lifts off in the way you hope it might. Amy Speace, Lynn Hollyfield is not. And closer “Because of You” brings a candle to the gloomy apathy, but it still doesn’t grab hold in the same way “Life and Its Beauty” does with its vaudevillian bluesy approach. Perhaps the record’s best moment, “Life” single-handedly recognizes the singer as a versatile artist, one who has so much more potential than the blandness and predictability that creeps through far too often and far too consistently here.
Yet that’s the tragedy of “In the Balance”: While Lynn Hollyfield is an artist of purity and skill, she has a hard time focusing those virtues in productive, meaningful ways. There’s quite a distance between being bad and being boring and while the singer certainly isn’t the former, she clearly loses the battle with the latter throughout the majority of these 12 songs.
So yeah. We get it: You want to just play. You want to just sing your songs. But the next time you sit down to craft another set of all-original material … can you please spend just a little more time thinking them through? You might be surprised, Ms. Hollyfield, at what you’ll find.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **