Ari Hest: Sunset Over Hope Street – Album Review

Prolific and talented singer/songwriter Ari Hest spent over a year recording the tracks for his upcoming album Sunset Over Hope Street, out next Tuesday, March 1st. Hest took the time to carefully craft the tracks on Sunset Over Hope Street into a thematic and melodic whole. Keys figure heavily, and add to a vibrant album that often uses dramatic, compelling percussion and clever lyrical turns-of-phrase. Songs like “How Would I Know,” bring to mind the sound of a band like Keane, while title track “Sunset Over Hope Street” shows a particularly rich understanding of folk and the singer/songwriter tradition and reminds one a bit of Nick Drake.

Hest is an introspective thinker and very intelligent guy. The album is awash in a joining of the personal with the universal, both musically and lyrically, and Hest has an extraordinary ability to connect with the listener vocally somewhat akin to the appeal of a singer like Adam Duritz of Counting Crows.  For example, the personal heartache and insecurity of “Until Next Time,” “Down the Mountain” and “Sunset Over Hope Street” merge with the more universal concerns of the human condition and modern society in songs like “Business of America,” “A Way Back Home” and the natural metaphors of “Swan Song.” In “Business of America” Hest explores modern Western society singing that “faith is a victim of circumstance/ In this shallow age/ It doesn’t stand a chance.” The guitar rhythmically picks its way through, accompanied by plucked strings and an angry driving rhythm that picks up after the two-minute mark. Hest goes on to question materialism and “the system” for always putting money first and thereby sanctioning a lack of compassion in fellow citizens. “Gather up the goods like a good robot/ It isn’t what you are/ It is what you got…/ Pay no attention to the dying man/ If you ain’t got cash we won’t lend a hand../Oh that’s the system at work/ Everybody’s a jerk.” Hest wonders if America can live up to his vision of being, presumably, less materialistic, more brotherly, and more caring for the downtrodden. But by (perhaps semi-satirically) naming the system as the ever-present culprit, he seems to credit the left’s idea of reforming the system into the social welfare state, a concept that has got bankrupt signs going up all over Europe and often perpetuates the poverty it is trying to alleviate. The potential for satire exists in that the song could be taken as a suggestion that individuals themselves take action to help one another and stop using the system as an excuse and justification for why they are a “jerk.” In other words stop waiting for the government to fix everything. While this is is a rather simplified version of political and economic events, the critique of the isolation of the modern individual and the walls that people place between themselves and the suffering around them is an important insight and the song is a vital debate to bring up.

Other stirring observations abound, and the lyrical maturity of the album is considerable. “We’ve grown immune to sorry sights/ brought to us in black and white,” Hest sings in the yearning desperation of “A Way Back Home,” pointing out that the stratification of larger events under dualistic interpretations by the powers-that-be is one of many things making us further and further away from both an inner and outer home; a remove from a moral center in our own self and in the larger society to which we belong. Identity, compassion, perception. These themes figure deeply in Sunset Over Hope Street. But most of all, Hest’s vocal style and delivery convey a spirit of seeking and this is a strong basis for all the tracks on the album. Even the mostly-despairing outlook of “Swan Song,” is driven by a spirit of seeking and with its almost flamenco-lite picking and symphonic swells it ends up emphasizing simply the scale of changes approaching in the lyricist’s internal development and the wider world more than it does any attributive judgment on them. “Gone is the world that I have relied/ It has shed its sweet lullaby/ For a swan song…One day soon we will follow/ Leave the familiar/ For places unknown.”

In fact a cautious tone of hope and acceptance finds its way through Sunset Over Hope Street in songs like “Give It Time,” and “A Good Look Around.” Even the melancholic bent of much of the album is refreshing in a way. Rather than play up a jaunty or poppy affectation as some singer/songwriters might do, Hest is very honest about the challenges facing himself and the world, and sings with a kind of empathy that is somehow all-the-more inspiring when it doesn’t shy from sadness and disappointment but instead frames a mature outlook where “when nothing’s going the way I planned/ and the times that I cannot understand/ when I go after things beyond my reach/…You come to me to let me know/ That the good, the bad, is how I will grow.”  Indeed, throughout Sunset Over Hope Street Hest delivers enduring, memorable lyrics that take the situational and make it universal, creating a remarkably timeless atmosphere – while all the while experimenting in original and captivating ways with vocals and instrumentation.

8/10

Also, don’t forget that you can win an autographed copy of Sunset Over Hope Street by emailing me at paulrb7@hotmail.com or tweeting me. The deadline is 11:59PM, Monday, February 28th. A winner will be chosen at random, announced on my Twitter page and here on Country Chorus and have their own copy of Sunset Over Hope Street autographed by Ari mailed to them on March 1st. Entries are limited to North America.

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About countrychorus

I'm a journalist and videographer with an interest in country music currently working north of Toronto, Canada. I have a B.A. from Carleton University and a Master's Certificate in Broadcast Television from Fanshawe College. You can follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulrbrian
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