The Madison Cunningham Revealer Album gives out some sparks of refreshing musical brilliance!
The modern era of mainstream music has been dominated by computer-generated loops, heavily tuned vocals, and the limitless ability to edit and manipulate any aspect of a song for quite some time. Whether or not this age of unparalleled resources has had a positive or negative effect on music is at the mercy of the listener’s bias, but it’s no secret that authenticity and originality have become something to be desired elsewhere in the music world. That being said, the “real deal” can certainly still be found among the many modern artists that lurk in the formerly mainstream genres of Folk, Rock, and Alternative. One such gem of refreshing originality interwoven with influences from a bygone era is Madison Cunningham’s 2022 album, Revealer.
Following the release of her debut album Who Are You Now, itself an acclaimed work that garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album, Cunningham has taken her craft to fascinating new heights with her sophomore effort. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Cunningham is credited with performing all of the vocals, guitar, bass, drums, cello, piano, percussion, and more throughout the album. The album explores sonic landscapes, song structures, and time signatures that create feelings of tension and uncertainty, as well as lyrics of personal analysis and growth.
In the opening track, “All I’ve Ever Known”, her triplet-laden guitar playing in 3/4 time is accompanied by a variety of percussive elements that pave the way to her delicate yet convicted vocals. She ponders the isolation of an ever-changing life on the road, as well as the tribulations of maintaining relationships along the way.
The second track, “Hospital”, is easily the most accessible on the album, opening with a biting guitar riff and a vocal melody that could have come straight from Sheryl Crow’s early catalog. With a catchy chorus, a bridge that centers around a riff that could have starred in its song, and a Wilco-Esque drum sound, the tune bounces along with attitude and self-assured alt-rock greatness. The imagery in “Anywhere” paints vivid portraits of life surrounding a relationship on the brink of collapse and the associated complex dynamics. The dissonance that creeps into the verses makes the choruses all the more cathartic; a recurring theme throughout the album.
The next tune, “Sunshine Over the Counter”, features Cunningham’s double-tracked vocals float over an array of almost unidentifiable sounds in the verses, perhaps an artifact leftover from her admiration for the Beatles and Radiohead. There are winds, wooden blocks, a mellotron; all the makings of a listening experience that never grows tiresome.
In “Life According to Raechel”, Cunningham pours her heart out over the loss of her grandmother. A gentle yet lush string arrangement, along with pizzicato cellos and bass guitar, accompanies her most heartfelt vocal performance on the album. Reaching into her falsetto for the choruses, Cunningham croons about the dissolving of a friendship whose inhabitants have fallen victim to the bittersweet pains of growing up. The string section break before the song’s finale is melodic and fulfilling with every rise and fall, guiding us to Cunningham’s parting question: “When did war become sensible and love unfair?”
The second half of the album begins with “In Japan”, a lament of the pressures of the life Cunningham has chosen. She sings of the contradiction between feeling pressured and claustrophobic in her pursuit of originality while also feeling like nothing is holding her back. The lyrics are ironically befitting, as this piece contains some of her most unique arrangement decisions and melodies on the album. “Collider Particles” opens with a drum sound reminiscent of “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, but is quickly joined by Cunningham’s jazzy guitar chords and licks. The tune evolves into a frenzy of synthesized waves rolling over an increasingly unsettling mix of staccato guitar lines and anguished vocals.
The resulting feelings of anxiety and paranoia are done no favors by the next song, “Your Hate Could Power A Train”, which opens with an onslaught of pizzicato strings, guitar, and percussion. Cunningham makes heavy use of dissonance throughout the entire song to create an atmosphere of unease, until breaking open into a much-needed, albeit brief, moment of uplifting relief in the bridge. The opening riff takes over once again, followed by a final chorus about the willingness to let slide anything in the name of love, even such deep-rooted hate as this.
On “Our Rebellion”, Cunningham once again lets the wings of her creativity spread out, throwing in subtle contributions of mellotron lines that pan back and forth, a bouncing synthesizer lick, and deep piano strikes in the choruses. Her lyrics are at their most metaphorical on the album, comparing her and her partner’s love to rebellion and insanity. She sings of her desire to fight for a love that has grown strained under the pressure of being miles apart, and the struggle to maintain mutual openness.
This leads us to the closing track of the album, “Sara and the Silent Crowd”. The song bounces along in a waltz, rising and falling with Cunningham’s vocals floating above the myriad of instruments that come and go throughout. The titular Sara is a vehicle for the loss of self on the road to success, and the disillusionment that accompanies the need to please a faceless audience. Likely a comparison to Cunningham herself, the song is an interesting choice to conclude a refreshingly unique album from an artist that is sure to continue along this path to success.
While the production choices on the album are worthy of a review on their own, the audio quality of Revealer ensures that these choices are clear-cut and masterfully conveyed. For an album that has so much going on at once, toggling between moments of isolated vocals and guitar to full-blown sections featuring every instrument Cunningham could come up with, the mixes are never muddy or overly busy. Each instrument is given its space to contribute to the madness.
The stereo field is in full use here, with percussion elements panned from the hard right, to the hard left, and everywhere in between. Despite the liberal use of bells, sticks, triangles, and other notoriously harsh instruments throughout the album, it retains a reminiscent warmth of albums far older than this.
The dynamics of the album are befitting of the subject matter, allowing for moments of intimacy as well as grandiose exploration. In such moments, the songs even seem to be written in such a way as to allow for enough time to identify each sound that has been carefully placed in the sonic landscape, preventing the decisions from becoming gratuitous.
Live performances of this album have proven to be equally as enthralling to consume as the actual album, such as Cunningham’s performance on NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert. Her performance of “All I’ve Ever Known”, backed by a drummer, keyboardist, and bass player, is musically faithful to the album version while allowing Cunningham the freedom to play with her vocals. She possesses the rawness of any great folk singer, with the guitar skills of a well-seasoned professional. She and the band jump right into the pocket with “Hospital”, stopping and starting in perfect unison at every turn. The song itself is the best candidate for this setting, they turn in a tight performance that captures the attitude heard on the album version. Their version of “In From Japan” takes on a different mood; the acoustic guitar from the album is replaced with an electric one that provides a more chugging bite in the verses.
Thoroughly impressive here is the keyboard player, Philip Krohnengold, who expertly recreates many of the textures heard on the album, including mellotron, organ, piano, and the vast majority of synthesizers that give the illusion of multiple players at once. The band then leaves Cunningham to perform “Life According to Raechel” on her own, which she does with graceful vulnerability. The stripped-down version is appropriate to the subject matter, showcasing the grief that she has intimately known.
In an even more intense performance of her most radio-friendly tune, Cunningham performs every instrument on this quasi-live version of “Hospital” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTd8Q4H-cXs). Though the song has been recorded in layers, the multi-talented artist showcases her full range of ability by playing drums, bass, two different guitars, and vocals in a live setting. As with the Tiny Desk version, she has no trouble replicating the confidence displayed on the album, and she remains wonderfully in the pocket with herself the entire time. Aside from any deviations that she intentionally makes, Cunningham has a remarkable ability to perform with little to no mistakes. Her voice is consistently on pitch, yet at no point is she robotic or formulaic. She continues to surprise, the same way she does throughout the entirety of this fine album!
Revealer.Recommended Recording Amazon $11.99
(Nicolas Ritchie is a known audio engineer and music reviewer)
WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !
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