Words To Break Your Heart by Boston’s Steph Barrak is an 11-song release that finds a different home in every person’s music collection, depending on the listener. One of the songs could be a mainstream radio hit and another could be a highlight on an independent musician’s release. The album’s general aesthetics are very open and welcoming–nothing like the visual themes that the average “hip” blog reader of today finds on front pages of music websites. Between the artwork’s basic typeface, hyper-friendly colors and the album’s title, one might walk right by this release because it merely doesn’t fit within today’s standards of cool. And after listening to the record on repeat, it becomes evident that this is not a bad thing. One can be “indie,” and “underground” today, and still release something that sounds poppy and broad that doesn’t have to be joined with a MacDonald’s ad or a Disney Channel show. Barrak proves this point.
Words To Break Your Heart begins with the song “Connecticut,” a track about the musician’s home state. It’s an acoustic-electric song that sets the tone for the album; there’s a folk vibe but there’s nothing bare about the tracking and production. The song picks up as Barrak reveals feelings about her home and tells vague stories–stories that everyone can relate to–from her youth. There’s a confidence in her vocals as she confronts some of her least-favorite things about where she grew up.
The next couple tracks that follow,”Painted Face,” and “Robot,” maintain the same vein of well-recorded poppy pleasure. “Painted Face,” although it is lyrically less positive, has an upbeat tempo and bright chords. “Robot” sounds a litttttle Michelle Branchy, particularly during the moments when Barrak holds out the ends of her lines, but it is all in good taste. The song’s added robotic keyboard sounds strike a late ’90s indie vibe–circa Rilo Kiley and Death Cab beginnings. It’s important to note Barrak’s smooth voice stays in tune and belts effortlessly during the high and low parts of her songs.
As mentioned, some of the album’s songs tend to emit more of a mainstream appeal, especially in the way that they are written–structurally, lyrically, and instrumentally. “Hardwired” is a good example of this. The track brings in slow-growing horns and strings and a handful of ahhs, linking the choruses together that are pretty basic but catchy: “So I’ll wait here, I won’t make a move / I know what evolution can do / And I’m hardwired to be here with you / I know you are too.” The song dissolves around the 5-minute mark, making it the longest track on the album–not the best length for radio airplay but certainly appropriate if you’re looking for a lingering slow dance tune.
Track 7’s “Natural Progression” is arguably the strongest, catchiest creation on Words To Break Your Heart. The quick, escalating guitar work and storytelling could easily be used as a sync spot on a major network television show. The words are relatable and versatile; Barrak could be singing about a deteriorating relationship, community, city, or planet. Her words, “It’s nothing that you said / It’s nothing that you did / No, it’s not something you can fix / It’s not even broken” could apply to all of the above.
Where “Natural Progression” emphasizes Barrak’s potential as a songwriter, the songs “Oh Lo Lo” and “The Way You Make Me Smile” are less original and promising. “Oh Lo Lo” sounds a bit plain, with a Jason Mraz style that starts, “I write this song, it’s 1 a.m.” It’s too often that artists talk about writing a song within their own songs–this trend should be avoided whenever possible now because of its overwhelming occurrence in today’s music. “The Way You Make Me Smile” also features a lyrical detail that might rub listeners the wrong way as Barrak unveils the famous “smile / while” rhyme that was maxed out in Colbie Caillat’s famous 2007 single, “Bubbly.”
Barrak is of course aware of her tendency to merge genres and write consumer-friendly songs, otherwise she wouldn’t write them. If those two songs are the only ones on the record that waver less safely into society’s classification of “pop music,” why is that a bad thing? It is worth noting this because some music listeners who stick to their less-mainstream scenes might be deterred by these songs, just because they take on a broader delivery.
Barrak’s venture into the acoustic-pop world makes it even more satisfying to point out that the songwriter saved her most original songs for the last two tracks of the album, tucked at the end for the most committed fans. “Married A Robber” features Barrak’s most explicit storytelling. It’s not clear from whose perspective she is speaking, but she assumes an identity in the song that is very strong and meaningful, leaving an impression on the listener. The vocal effect adds an antiqued touch to the song, encouraging its evocative nature.
“Watch For Me,” Words To Break Your Heart‘s final track, delivers a naked sucker punch of emotion, ending the album with a nice note of vulnerability. But even just as the song seems like it might turn into a confessional formula at the end of the first refrain, light percussion kicks in at a marching beat and leads to a new verse. The song is only verse – refrain, verse – refrain, taking a turn away from the structures of the rest of the album, and introducing a new approach.
It’s hard to believe that Words To Break Your Heart is Barrak’s debut release. The songs sound masterfully produced and mixed, and they have scores of auspicious details buried beneath the layers of sound that blend so beautifully together that they aren’t immediately recognized and therefore rewarded. There’s a lot to Words To Break Your Heart; even if the first listen seems simple, further listens open the songs’ textures and full capabilities.