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I loved New Mexico-raised, L.A.-based (via NYC) songstress and former Nickelodeon/Naked Brothers Band keyboardist Boyce’s 2010 self-titled debut album, calling it “alluring and accomplished” in Big T’s issue 66. Ditto her zippy “Hands Untied” single and stark, stripped-down Tough Love EP, both from 2013. Though the latter may have been only a stopgap release, it was one of my favorite records of that year (see my review of it here). This ambitious, cinematic second LP further builds on the promise of those early records, primarily due to a pronounced upgrade in depth and scope. In contrast to the unplugged approach she took on the EP, she’s backed by a proficient and potent band – including pounding drummers Paul Wilkinson and Steve Goold – who provide persuasive support, while she skillfully maneuvers between acoustic guitar, piano, and organ. In addition to its full-band wallop, The Life bristles with immaculate, incandescent production (by UK’s Dave Izumi, who also contributes synths/programming) and lush, layered arrangements. But it’s Boyce’s wide-ranging, high-octave-tipping voice that’s again the star. It remains as unvarnished and emotive as it was on her previous records, even as it’s gained in power and poise.
Boyce has revealed in interviews that her move to L.A. in 2013 was prompted by an aborted wedding, the end of a long-term relationship, and a need for a fresh start. While those experiences inspire the LP’s lyrics, she doesn’t wallow in her woes. Instead, The Life feels as resolute, redemptive, and reassuring as an album can get. Two pre-release songs/videos hinted that the LP would be something special. The opening “Limits” is a stunning statement of purpose, finding Boyce pledging to break free from self-imposed habits, as the song builds to a dramatic, Radiohead “Fake Plastic Trees”-esque crescendo. And on the bouncy title track, she playfully croons over a soulful keyboard and Phil Wilkinson’s chugging electric guitar, mulling about the endless paths in life one can choose. Thankfully, there’s plenty more where they came from. The threatening and thunderous “Push Back” is a slowly-evolving mini-masterpiece, punctuated by a Smiths “Death of a Disco Dancer”-educing trudge and Boyce’s surly, shattering shrieks. And the spooky, spiritual “Host a Show” is a simmering, windswept stormer, seemingly inspired by her New Mexico birthplace’s Native American/old West folklore and its bleak, boundless desert vistas. On those two, she seeks cures from corroded courtships, which have left her a “drawn and desperate alien,” as she sings on “Host.”
If you missed Tough, Boyce wonderfully reworks two of its most affecting tunes. The short but sumptuous “Live My Life (Like it’s Suicide)” and sorrowful yet soothing “Broken-Hearted Girl,” both originally accompanied only by guitar on the EP, are now adorned with arresting, attractive piano and percussion arrangements, making them even more cathartic. And there are so many other unforgettable moments scattered throughout, like the “Strawberry Fields Forever”-evoking melody and haunted choral humming on “Unsatisfied Mind,” Boyce’s transcendent piano trilling and soaring singing on “Waiting for the Line,” and the campfire-calm, prison chaingang-like rhythmic clomp of “The Nest.” As if all of that weren’t enough, she closes the album with the most bedazzling, breathtaking piano song she’s written to date (even eclipsing the debut’s “Dutch Girls” and the EP’s “To Amy,” the latter about Amy Winehouse): the spine-tingling, heart-stirring ballad “Back for More.” Accentuated by a ravishing and rapturous vocal performance that flabbergasts, “Back” emphasizes her desire to put the past behind her and continue moving forward, and to “toil toward something pure.” Not only does The Life achieve that, but it establishes Boyce as one of the most gratifying, gifted, and genuine songwriters going. (mistyboyce.com)
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