Written by Jeff Modzelewski
Artists have been blending soul, pop, and funk since the mid 70’s in various ways with various degrees of success. From Donna Summers to Stevie Wonder to more modern jam-band adjacent artists like Jennifer Hartswick, there is tremendous depth to explore in these genres. Sarah Martinson takes her own attempt at blending these styles with her debut album Back To You. While she makes an ernest attempt at conveying a story through a soulful, danceable, jazzy mix, the album unfortunately ends up falling rather flat in a number of ways. There are hints of something very good on the record, but it simply gets lost in a poorly produced album that doesn’t have the necessary hooks and doesn’t showcase the type of talent to make you want to dig for those gems.
The good thing about the album is that you can’t question Martinson’s passion on the record. She is singing from her heart, and the songs are relatively well put together. The opening two tracks, a short introductory “Always” followed by the title track, work well, especially when the tempo starts to kick into gear on “Back To You.” “We Should Stick Together” has a funky bassline and, again, does well once things speed up a bit. “It Ain’t Over” is a bit of a standout track, again because they speed up the tempo, and “Bluebirds” is a fun little mid-tempo tune. “Unbreakable” is the one really solid slower song on the album, mostly because the singing is a little softer and is done in a range that fits her voice much better. Unfortunately things fall off quite a bit with a run of slower songs in the middle of the album. Songs like “Tough Love” and “Fly Away Birdie” really require Martinson to carry them with her vocals, and she doesn’t show the necessary ability to do that during this stretch. She doesn’t do well when trying to change her tone in a song, and her inflections when she holds a note or a phrase don’t have the dynamics that they need.
There’s also sloppiness abound on the album. Martinson spends much of the album singing in a high register that she seems to struggle to hit. There’s nothing wrong with a vocalist stretching their range, but by attempting to do so much of the albumin a high register she loses any sort of dynamics in her voice and it ends up sounding flat. Flat is actually a good term for the album as a whole. The production work does the album no favors, as the instruments all run together in a mushy sort of way that is fine for a demo tape but not for a polished release. And for many songs on the album even the writing itself seems to fall flat. I really come back to the idea that a good producer would have pushed to change some of the vocal lines to the songs, picked different takes, and done more to add to the dynamics of the music. There are good moments but everything just starts to blend together to the point where it’s easy to tune out and forget what you’re listening to in the first place.
I truly hate to write a review that paints an artist or an album in a bad light. I know first hand the work that goes into producing even the most rudimentary independent release. But, in this case, I think this incarnation of Sarah Martinson simply didn’t work well. I’m not sure if she needs some songwriting partners, a better backing band, or to look in a slightly different direction, but something here didn’t work and needs to be fixed before she tackles another album. I think there’s talent there to make that happen, and with any luck this will simply be a mediocre debut that paves the way for something much better in the future. Songs like “Unbreakable,” “Bluebirds,” and the title track show a lot of promise and potential. This album, however, is one that you can pass on and not feel like you missed out on anything.