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No one can expect an artist to keep repeating themselves. Over the course of five solo recordings Stephanie Rearick produced music that is unorthodox in its melodic and vocal arrangements. That music was always centered on her adept piano skills with electronic treatments starting to creep in around 2005’s Star Belly. “Flyboy” on 2007’s Democracy was a departure and “The Man Who Stole Tomorrow” from the same album hinted at the looping that Rearick was incorporating into her live shows. A further change of direction was reflected on her sixth release, 2011’s Up the Wall, which saw Rearick abandon the acoustic piano on several tracks.
Rearick’s newest release Dreamworld is a further left turn from Up the Wall, moving deeper into alternative pop and treated vocals. There is not a trace of piano here, all electronic keyboards with a similar kaleidoscopic quality. The music is heavy on repetition with layers of vocals; music that has little in common with the experimental singer/songwriter/pianist of her earlier outings. The sounds on Dreamworld may have chosen to convey the feeling the album’s title evokes.
Rearick’s always chosen cover songs to interpret and on Dreamworld she selects “Laugh,” an obscure track by Milwaukee band the Frogs. The song has a poignant, childlike quality that suits Rearick’s style and is a highlight of Dreamworld. She also reprises Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy,” which appeared on her album of the same name. This version pushes up the electronic kick drum with Wurlitzer organ tones providing the only accompaniment. At times the vocals get lost in the cacophony and here the intensity of the lyrics gets diminished by distracting drum machines.
“Skin” and “An Ordinary Day” are remarkable for their mechanical drumbeat, spare, blippy keyboards and somewhat excessive vocal layers. “What You Want” is in a similar vein while “Rain (Hymn Jr.) keeps the vocals low in the mix with layers making them difficult to decipher. “Impossible” redeems the vocal clarity but the song’s latter half will have you checking your disc for possible defects as it employs some stuttering, hard edits on the vocal tracks. Rearick’s signature trumpet bookends the album beginning with “Ado” and closing out in the coda of “A Free-for-All.”
Those familiar with her work will no doubt miss the piano and it’s not clear whether this move to alt-pop is transformational or just a fad but Rearick has always challenged her listeners to abandon their preconceptions. The songs on Dreamworld will stick in your head with repeated listening but the trick for Rearick may be getting the listener to that point.