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Shannon Wright - Let in the Light

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Artist: Shannon Wright

Album: Let in the Light

Label: Touch and Go

Review date: Jun. 28, 2007

When you see the word "self-taught" in an artist's bio, it's often a code word for "primitive" or even "barely able to hold a guitar right side up". The phrase "conservatory trained,” by contrast, frequently stands in for stuffy, unnecessarily complicated and emotionally remote. Why can't people teach themselves well? Why can't they retain the honestly and punk directness of the autodidact while actually picking up some skill? It's an interesting question, which can also be phrased as: Why aren't more people like Shannon Wright? On her seventh-full length, this Florida punk turned indie songwriter sacrifices none of the rawness of her earlier material…but she has definitely picked up some chops.

For example, the first sound you hear on Let in the Light is piano, a subtle interplay between walking left-handed quarter notes and occasional higher right-handed flourishes. It's surprising, if you don't know already, when you find out that she's self-taught on the piano, because the music she draws out of the instrument is nuanced, classically-influenced and rather good. And in fact, a good deal of the complexity and the style diversity of Let in the Light can be traced to the piano lines…whether the Weimar caberet lilt of opening cut "Defy This Love" or the Elliot Smith-ish minor chords of "Idle Hands" or the luminous romantic waltz-time of "Steadfast and True" (which makes it sound like she's been listening to Chopin on the sly).

Yet, she also plays guitar, and she's rather good at that as well. "St. Pete" starts with feather-light and dreaming picking, then swerves suddenly into off-timed electric slow-rock; you can almost see Wright's hair swinging from side to side to the hard beat. "Don't You Doubt Me" is a blues-burnt drone, the guitar line dissolving into a hallucinatory haze of overtone and undertone. And "When the Light Shone In" is delicately beautiful, the guitar a flurry of fast-changing intervals, left to stand on its own for a full minute before Wright's earthy whispers.

You get the sense that Wright continually works on her playing, stretching her capabilities and listening to music all the time to find new things to try. That shows up in the songwriting as well, since the best song here seems also to be the biggest reach. That's the closer, "Everybody's Got a Part to Play," a piano-laden, Beatles-esque pop song whose melody sticks like a song you've known all your life the very first time you hear it. Wright is everywhere in this song, pounding out the chords, floating the choruses and belting out multi-voiced call and responses. It's DIY in the sense of one person doing almost everything (except drums and bass), but it's also smart and cognizant of its place in the tradition of pop music. Maybe all those other self-taught freak-folk hoboes should go back and teach themselves another chord.

By Jennifer Kelly

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