It’s always nice, after listening to an artist over the course of a few years, to see how they grow, the directions they choose, the difference in the way they approach what they want to say. It’s fascinating to see someone throw off the inevitable tentative approach of the newcomer’s first outing, to watch them get more assured in their willingness to take risks.
How Long, the most recent offering from Northern California’s Steven Graves, is a good example of a singer-songwriter growing into the niche where he can flex his muscles. Graves got there by stepping outside of his comfort zone.
There’s the sense here that Graves wants to see where the music wants to go, and that he’s following the music. Different styles work with different songs, and Graves has taken on everything from jazzy swing to reggae to old-school Americana.
From his earliest offerings, it was clear that his preference was for songwriting dealing with activism and social causes. He does them well, and with sincerity; like most of us, he’s pushing back against the dystopia of the current administration. Graves is using his natural inclination for protest songs as a vehicle.
Oddly, though, it’s the personal songs on How Long that really work best for me. “Good Day”, with its cheerful harmonies, leads me on to the clutch in the middle, starting with “Captain Soul”. This is a great lyric, with a beautifully structured melody and some of the fine backup harmonies that pepper the song list. “Fool For You” is a sweet tune, made to shine by singer Sasha Dobson’s lead vocal. “Set Me Free”, a kickass little rocker, is possibly my favourite track here. For those who enjoy Dead covers, Graves offers up a competent version of “Sugaree”, faithful to the original.
Taken as a whole, How Long is a well-balanced mix of protest and personal, with some outstanding backing musicians and singers taking it to a higher level.