Classically trained vocalist eschews opera for something messier
By Gabriel Gomez
Debut albums can be tricky to quantify, because they inevitably become the touchstone that measures the vitality and relevance of an artist’s career. “Sophomore” efforts, or the proverbial dribble, “I liked their early stuff better,” are standard modes of understanding new musical ventures. But when we speak of debut albums, we must do it in a language that affords a balance of the intellectual and spiritual, so that we may begin to understand the creative impulse of anyone willing to expose and announce themselves to the world through a collection of songs.
Stephanie Hatfield, a classically trained opera vocalist who lives in Santa Fe, may be only willing to invite us into the wonder of her life by shoving us head first into the back seat of speeding car that is her remarkable debut album. But once we’re in, the record is a fussy and mercurial collection reminding us that the basic derivations of rock music matter most when unbinding the pages of our souls with melodies. Together with her band, Hot Mess, they are the ping from a distant radar bouncing from a lost vessel of unfeigned guitars, vocals, sex and madness built upon empires of heartache and new-found love.
The self-titled album, Stephanie Hatfield and Hot Mess, has the markings of a typical debut release. The 12-track album is largely non-committal in style, but is ultimately a rock ’n’ roll record. The four-piece band, flanked by keyboard and violin fills, is equally balanced throughout each song, which unfolds, rather than assaults, onto the senses. The album is not entirely mellow per se, but will undoubtedly pair well with a whiskey bender and generally shady behavior.
The rhythms and melodies — intro, bridge, crescendo — aren’t without familiarity and comfort. But what the album lacks in seasoned persona is made up with unrelenting spirit tethered by a cast of able musicians including Hatfield (guitar and lead vocals), Jason Aspelet (drums), Matt McClinton (bass and vocals) and Bill Palmer (lead guitar and vocals). McClinton and Palmer, two veteran players, co-produced the album.
It is no secret that bands and producers often place the “best” three songs at the beginning of their albums. Whether this is to captivate audiences, critics or radio program managers is one thing, but what’s clear on this particular album is that the first three songs function as a dare. They are, for lack of a better description, panoramically singular and support the idea that the band is either casting the widest net possible for attention or that they simply care not about consistency.
The album begins with “Suffer.” Palmer wrote the lyrics for this country-rock song, which introduces the album with a lingering melody focused on Hatfield’s vocals and a signature guitar riff. It is a stark contrast to “Follow Me to the Mesa,” a big bottom-end funked number supported by the piano of Santa Fe local Kevin Zoernig, which sounds straight out of Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. The third song, “Can I Stay,” echoes Brandi Carlyle with sweeping anthem guitars. All the while, Hatfield’s vocals map the unchartered landscape, espousing unrelenting control that at times makes you just want to die as they pierce right through you.
“In the Water,” the tenth track, is the album’s apex. From production to delivery to musicianship, it is the anchor of this debut release and hints at the possibilities of this relatively young band. The track captures an unforced purity that is difficult to capture in the studio.
Any band in the world can claim to make music beyond definitions; it is a claim that is patently impossible to achieve. But it is rare that a band is able to capture itself exploring sound and extending its possibilities by playing music for its simple and exhilarating joy. Stephanie Hatfield and Hot Mess has delivered a striking debut. It is not without flaws, but what is certain is that real talent still manages to separate itself from the clutter, and one can only hope that Hatfield, et al, will continue searching and making music, unbounded.