Maroon: Who the Sky Betrays (2003)
Maroon's not playing it safe. Who the Sky Betrays is the Brooklyn-based group's sophomore effort, and by pushing hard at the boundaries of the blend of contemporary rock/traditional jazz themes laid down on their debut, Migratory, these players have created a stunningly sophisticated and hugely successful work of art.
Keyboardist Benny Lackner and vocalist Hillary Maroon co-lead Maroon, co-writing six of the disc's forward looking compositions. Maroon's sound sizzles and pops with with a distinctive energy, with edgy harmonics that seem to teeter on a knife edge, Lackner mixes dissonant explosions with moments of delicate keyboard beauty. And Hillary Maroon's voice has evolved subtle new shades and tastes and colors since Migratory appeared; she can dip into a rich Cassandra Wilson-esque contralto and ascend into a distinctive coppery tang in the higher register, like the cries of a Wallace Roney trumpet solo.
Genres are straddled and played with here: Radiohead's "The Tourist" is a stark and anguished cover of the song, and then there's the Tin Pan Alley (and oft-covered) "When I Fall In Love," rendered here in a spare and fairly straightforward fashion, with Hillary sounding pensive, sad, and perhaps a bit pessimistic about the prospect, while trumpeter Nate Wooley coils some Cootie Williams whines around the vocalist's beautiful resonance.
"Black Hole Sun" (Soundgarden) and "Show Me" (Chrissie Hynde) are offered up in Maroon-esque fashion, as is the closer, "Isolation," from John Lennon's first post- Beatles album – a record that was as stark and painfully honest an artistic statement as you'll find. Lennon's 1970 version was spare: piano/bass/drums. Maroon, with J Why in the production seat, has given the tune an Abbey Road feel, especially in the Beatles-like guitar work of special guest Marc Ribot.
The original songs, though, are as (or more) compelling. The opener, "Is This the Time," with a catchy bass groove, modern production, and elastic vocals, should find a spot on radio somewhere. It, like "Welcome to Brooklyn," the opening track on Migratory, has hit record written all over it.
But the centerpiece, the Hillary Maroon-penned "When the Storm Comes" – a manic ten minute tour de force – is the highlight: near schizophrenic horn work by Alex Hamlin (alto sax) and Nate Wooley (trumpet); wailing, got-nothin'-to-lose guitar from Marc Ribot; a driving beat, crashing harmonies, and Hillary sounding as intense and edgy as she gets. In spirit, if not exactly in sound – though there is some of that – the song evokes a Howlin' Wolf session, the band in a menacing up-tempo groove, threatening to lose control.
This is a very different sound than you've likely encountered before, and it's hard to assign a category (if that matters). Uncompromising stuff. Maroon is a marvelously real and true thing.
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Track Listing: Is This the Time?, Bully on the Block, Will It Matter Whe We Were?, The Tourist, When the Storm Comes, Show Me, Black Hole Sun, Beyond the Bliss, Spun Me Shaky, When I Fall in Love, Isolation
Personnel: Hillary Maroon--voice; Benny lackner--keyboards; Derek Nievergelt--accoustic bass; Lance Carter-- drums. With special guests: Marc Ribot--guitar; Nate Wooley--trumpet; Alex Hamlin--alto sax;