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Denise Casey, 'Come Alive'

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  • Denise Casey, Come Alive

(Self-released, digital)

I used to sing karaoke at a Philadelphia dive called Locust Bar, where everyone from hipsters to grizzled old men felt comfortable taking their shot on the mic. One regular singer caught my ear with her unique sound. Her voice wasn't conventionally good, but it was unusual, so I kept listening.

With a tone that falls somewhere between that of Natalie Merchant and Joan Armatrading, Burlington acoustic folk artist Denise Casey's voice pulled that karaoke queen from the recesses of my memory within the first few notes of her debut full-length album, Come Alive.

Though her tone caught my attention from the get-go — the album's first song, "Hermit Thrush and Me," opens with Casey performing a cappella — Casey's overall vocal performance is not her strongest attribute. Throughout the LP, but particularly on "Sheeba's Throne," for example, the notes sound swallowed and less than pitch-perfect. Additionally, her rhythmic delivery never quite lands in the pocket — a nuance that doesn't seem to be a deliberate style choice.

A peek at Casey's public social media profiles shows a person who seeks joy and meditates on growth and gratitude. Her lyrics, on the other hand, tend to center on more sobering themes. In "The Void," she sings of isolation: "This is the desperate call you make / to escape the feelings that you can't take alone." With "Newbury," Casey (no relation to fellow Vermont folkster Patti Casey) crafts a truly sad song about a loved one's failing health, providing a vivid image not just of loss but of dying: "We know how this ends and I'm afraid to speak, / watching you watch this death creep / over his bones, / through his skin, / over your heart / I watch you breaking."

Casey taught herself to sing and play guitar after a life-changing trip to Nepal. Her guitar lines are straightforward and most effective when augmented by her fellow players. Chris Krag's violin intensifies the sorrow of "Newbury." A post-verse guitar lick with Caleb Weathers brightens "Lida's Song" (presumably named for Casey's sometime collaborator and Vermont choreographer Lida Winfield).

Golden-throated Grace Aldrich, who contributes background vocals on several tracks, steals the spotlight in "River Run," on which she and Casey sing in harmony over purely percussive instrumentation, calling to mind Fiona Apple's "Hot Knife."

So what is Casey's strongest feature as a musician? Probably her innate need to make music and her ability to embrace it as a form of self-care, as she describes in her bio. It's each listener's choice whether or not they wish to engage with her work. Casey, as she tells it, has no choice but to make music, so make music she should.

Come Alive is available at denisecasey.bandcamp.com.

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