Suzanne Santo Has a Lot To Sell In Yard Sale
Let’s get something out of the way right now. Suzanne Santo has a very rich and evocative voice with a natural vibrato similar to Emmy Lou Harris. That is what makes her special. Her song writing can be anywhere from pulling your heart out to a collection of tropes and cliches. Her singing is her superpower, and it makes even mundane songs sound wonderful. This is very evident on the new album Yard Sale.
“Over and Over”, which begins the album, is a bit of gospel/folk fusion that highlights her voice. There is some interesting drumming throughout the song. It also has a classic gospel structure with a chorus that rises and falls and backup singers that sound like a choir. It’s a strong start, however, because it features her best trait – her vocals.
“Mercy” uses reverb laden guitar and maybe a Dobro. That gives it that classic Americana sound that Santo does so well. The shifting chorus that says “I Learned about …” mercy, dying, changes, etc. plus banjo provides that bit of old timey homespun that is the hallmark of Americana. The song is full of stories about awful things like predatory neighbors and the cat getting killed yet delivered with such beauty that it’s not overwhelming. It pulls at the heart strings without being preachy or ponderous. Another highlight is a break that is full of shimmering guitars that sound more like a country/dream pop mashup.
“Goldrush” is a bit weaker. The lo fi beginning – simple strumming guitar plus vocals – leading into the full band arrangement is kind of done and cliched. Thankfully, a violin gives some much-needed color to the song. The song suffers because of the overuse of musical tropes and a lack of emphasis on Santo’s vocals. This is always the case. When the song doesn’t feature Santo’s voice, it’s almost never a great song.
The middle of the album is more problematic than one trope filled song though. Starting with “Save For Love” and extending through “Fall for That”, the tone of the album is sinister and urgent, almost frightening. It contributes to an overall sense of unease. That’s not bad in of itself and the songs themselves are great songs. The problem is that there are too many songs in a row like that. Santo should have provided some breaks from the emotional unease. It becomes too much to listen to all at once when you don’t get a break from the feeling of dread. Rearranging the album so that there are breaks from all these negative emotions would have made this a better album. Another problem is that she uses a minimal arrangement that lead into louder, fuller sounds, then abruptly cut back to the minimal arrangements. This way of writing a song creates these negative emotions and feelings of anxiety but also stereotypical. Maybe Santo just had a case of COVID brain or was just in a lousy mood, but the negativity, fear, and tropes gets to be too much.
Take “Save for Love’. It constantly produces that feeling that something bad is about to happen. It starts with a simple acoustic arrangement. The band then comes in slowly adding to the feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong. Lyrics like “No one is going to sleep through this one” add to the fear. Thankfully, Santo’s voice carries the emotion of the song more as much as the band does since she has a rich and evocative voice. This transforms something formulaic into something special. If the next song was something upbeat or a quiet love song, then the album would be spectacular. Unfortunately, the next batch of songs – “Bad Beast”, “Since I’ve Had Your Love”, “Afraid of Heights”, and “Fall for That” – all have this same emotional profile of unease and even dread.
The songs are individually good, especially Santo’s vocals. “Since I’ve Had Your Love” starts with a lo-fi reverb guitar and vocals that are reminiscent of a Sheryl Crow song before kicking into more of a southern rock sound. That heavier sound is also found on “Fall For That” where Gary Clark Jr. takes the sound up a notch. “Fall For That” almost plays like country heavy metal. I’m not sure if that’s a real genre but it should be. “Afraid of Heights” uses Santo’s voice plus a minimal arrangement in a way that will sound familiar to any classic rock aficionado as Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman.” All great songs on their own, but together they get ponderous.
An outlier in this group is “Bad Beast”. This song inexplicitly electronically alters Santo’s voice, arguably her best trait, so as to make the song sound even more sinister. Lyrics like “Bury me on Sunday” coupled with that driving beat and thin guitar riff that keeps repeating over and over, makes this a song going for fright over deep emotional connection. Other have done similar songs, most notably Joan Baez with “Barbara Allen” and AURORA with “Churchyard”, more deftly. The voice alteration seems ham handed on top of all of the other scary atmosphere.
Finally, with “Common Sense” we leave this landscape and get into what Santo does best – folk, Americana, and country. “Common Sense” is a get-you-in-the-gut song about doomed relationships. Here, she does everything right. Santo’s beautiful vocals are her most like Emmy Lou Harris. She adds to this reverb guitar and lush harmonies. Lyrics like “Where is my common sense?” and “I’m going down again” are full of pathos and sadness but not angst. She follows this up with “To No End”. This is very much a pop country song with a big vocal chorus that is immediately evocative of Reba McEntire in the 90s. “To No End” is the kind of song that should get airplay on country radio stations. It’s classic country.
The album ends with the softer, quieter songs “Idiot” and “Island”. “Idiot” is that classic intersection of pop and country that made artists like Pasty Cline timeless. It’s still not a happy song but it also doesn’t make you want to hide under the covers. Instead, it connects on a level that any human could understand. “Island” finishes the album with the perfect Suzanne Santo combination of a folk song and gorgeous vocals. Her voice just carries the song away with only minimal instrumentation from an acoustic guitar and piano. It’s the best way for this album to end.
With Yard Sale, Suzanne Santo puts together a great bunch of songs. It’s too bad that so many evoke fear, urgency, and dread in the listener. If they were only arranged differently so that there were breaks from all the negative emotions, this would be a marvelous album instead of just a collection of songs. Even more so, Santo needs to lighten up a bit. There’s only so much anyone can wallow in misery and fear. While she has every right to feel this way, an unending stream of negative doesn’t make for a great album. Listen to Yard Sale for her great voice and the better moments, only do so in small batches.
If you are interested in some of the comments I made during my first listen, check out my Discord server. Here’s an invite if you are not already on https://discord.gg/QSZdHQbq8x. I plan on having listening parties in the future.