Album Review

Adam Haworth Stephens

Brian Ahnmark
The concept of a solo album does not necessarily translate to going it alone.

Consider the case of Adam Haworth Stephens. The troubadour poet is best known as the principal songwriting half of San Francisco duo Two Gallants, alongside percussionist Tyson Vogel. On temporary hiatus from Two Gallants, Stephens embarked on a solo venture.

But don't be fooled: This is much more than the formulaic singer and his guitar. It's a singer and his guitar and his piano and a legendary producer in Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, The Shins, White Stripes) and a murderers' row of guest support including Patrick Hallahan and Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket), Andy Cabic (Vetiver), Cody Votolato (Blood Brothers/Jaguar Love), studio drummer extraordinaire Joey Waronker, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Mike Daly, Petra Haden, and current band members Jen Grady, Matt Montgomery and Omar Cuellar.

We Live On Cliffs, the end result, is a well-crafted effort that is infinitely more sonically expansive than any of Stephens' work with Two Gallants – by design, of course. Two Gallants have perfected their brand of ragged punk folk, which is both defined and limited by its own equation: Frantic guitar + maniacal drums + raw banshee vocals = 2Gs. We Live On Cliffs stands out precisely because Stephens guides the project far from Two Gallants territory.

It is frankly shocking that a musician renowned for his savage, dirty art could create something this clean. Opener “Praises In Your Name” is flawless, layering taut clean electric guitar and drum interplay atop a keyboard groove. The song stutter-steps through an impressive array of variations, culminating in a series of nimbly-plucked hooks from Mr. Stephens. That's about as heavy as the rocking gets, however, as the remainder of the record settles into a warm soul spirit. “Second Mind” is mellow but still moves, as does album dark horse highlight “Heights of Diamond.” Both songs benefit greatly from tasteful, propulsive percussion, and “Heights of Diamond” emerges from the disguise of ballad to plow through an emotional wallop of a bridge and a triumphant climax.

“With Vengeance Come” is perhaps more what one would expect from a solo debut: a gentle acoustic guitar melody and lovely harmonies from Grady. “Southern Lights” similarly builds from an acoustic foundation, but both numbers exemplify how the gifted supporting cast allows Stephens to focus on aspects other than his typical furious finger-picked guitar style, which is a necessary part of the job description in Two Gallants. The lyric “I'm not the man that I appear” could not be more fitting, as Stephens lets strings and keys and rhythms bear the musical weight.

We Live On Cliffs is a solo album, yes. But ultimately, Stephens' reliance on the support of a few musically-inclined friends is what gives this work fresh, unique color.