- Ian Steinberg, Guidance
(Self-released, digital download, vinyl, CD)
I am being attacked by folk music! It's basically as though I were walking down Pearl Street in Burlington, just minding my business, maybe thinking about some hot little electro-pop record that's been on my dirty mind, when BAM! Another folk record accosts me, sticks a mandolin into my ribs and says, "You're going to listen to these sad, pastoral dirges I wrote! Hope you're ready to grapple with some dark emotions, friend."
I actually do like folk music. Don't you folkers send me emails saying Seven Days hates folk, because a) between Henry Jamison and Cricket Blue, there's plenty of praise going around; and b) I only unilaterally hate jam bands. Kidding! I'm kidding.
Look, I just want to be clear that while I enjoy Ian Steinberg's newest release, Guidance, he's entering a rather crowded field up here, a scene full of talent and bold records. In other words, Burlington is having a folk resurgence, so you can't be putting out some weak shit.
By and large, Steinberg more than holds his own. He has a conversational, clear voice with a gift for lyrics — not to mention plenty of skill on the guitar. As a songwriter, he possesses a refreshingly classy directness, musically as well as melodically. For instance, "Honey Won't You Come Back Home" displays an old-world charm that frames an otherwise dour tune.
But the fourth track, "Pieces... Pieces...," is where things really get interesting. It's the first melancholy song on a record obsessed with much that is melancholy. The album is meant to embody Steinberg's struggle with depression after a dual loss — that of his grandfather, who makes a posthumous appearance on "Poppy's Last Message," and the death of a close friend who died of a drug overdose.
"And Now..." deals with that death in a sometimes raw, sometimes copacetic fashion. Appraising his friend with the distance of death, Steinberg offers no easy views, nor attempts to explain what any of it means, other than the primal urge to go on. "Your sad charm and pricked up arm / The coin tossed up for you," he sings in a voice tender with nostalgia. He concludes, "Silky web of devil's thread / Stole what was left to lose."
The title track brings the narrative back to Steinberg and his quest to pick up the pieces. It's a song of hope among wreckage, full of pleading and searching as he tries to find a way out of despair, the overarching theme of the album.
At times, the directness of his songs seems to sap sophistication from them. But faulting Guidance for not quite hitting the heights of Burlington's folk-music pacesetters hardly seems fair. For a debut LP, the record is far above average, with crisp production and intelligent, purposeful arrangements. And, like any good storyteller, Steinberg knows movement is essential to character. By the closing track of the album, "Sunshine," he has found a path away from loss of friends, family and love.
Steinberg is working in a talent-heavy field, full of inventive songwriters and incredible musicians. It's no small thing to put out a debut this competent, polished and full of potential.
Steinberg plays on Friday, July 5, at SideBar in Burlington. Guidance is available at iansteinberg.bandcamp.com.
Correction: July 3, 2019: An earlier version if this story mischaracterized the death of a friend of the artist. It was a drug overdose.