While Faroe Islands native Teitur Lassen might occasionally slip into the stock singer/songwriter trap of oversimplifying or lending too much vocal gravitas to a situation where restraint would be more ideal, there’s no denying the level of his abilities. Teitur, in no uncertain terms, has a very high ceiling, which he showed in flashes on his first record, Poetry & Aeroplanes (there’s that trap again), and does so again on his independent second effort, Stay Under The Stars.
Now if we could only find a producer to get the hell out of his way.
Martin Terefe has never proven himself to be a minimalist. This worked to the advantage of Ron Sexsmith, who took him on as producer for his last two solo albums, Cobblestone Runway and Retriever, both of which dolled up Sexsmith’s largely sparse early work with strings, pianos, backup singers and those little electronic flourishes that became en vogue in the land of the troubadours once David Gray made it chic. It gave Sexsmith’s songs life and zeal, a vibrant palette of colors to match his plainspoken wisdom and uncondescending eye for interpersonal detail. It added a much-needed extra dimension as well as shedding some added light on a songwriter who was invariably skilled at spinning wonderful, insightful lyrics. More so than any producer prior to him in Sexsmith’s career (primarily Mitchell Froom and Steve Earle), Terefe gave us Sexsmith tunes that we remembered, songs that sounded different than the one prior to it.
The issue is, Teitur and Ron Sexsmith exist on different planes. Ron Sexsmith needed the musical assistance.
As he proved on Poetry & Aeroplanes, Teitur’s best moments come in scenarios where he remains in the spotlight, such as on open, direct confessionals like “I Was Just Thinking,” with just he and his guitar, or the trip-hop-lite of “Sleeping With the Lights On,” where producer Matt Bronleewe used a very unintrusive, looped backbeat that served as a nice little hook while managing to keep the focus squarely on the performer. Granted, there were some equally overcooked moments on that album, which makes the relative non-progression of this album more frustrating than disappointing, seeing as it’s more the problem of a trigger-happy producer than an uncompelling performer.
There are many moments on Stay Under the Stars where Terefe slathers on the string quartet arrangements like they’re quicksand, to the point of burying Teitur’s voice and the basic instruments deep within the mix. The gloomy, funereal live cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” finds Teitur struggling to surge forward over the accompanying strings with just his voice and electric guitar. Unadorned moments like “I Run The Carousel” and “Umbrellas In The Rain” are a relief not only because they find Teitur stretching out and taking some risks, but also because they’re simple and straightforward, not trying to sound significant. Teitur writes solid, evocative tunes that are honest and creative when taken on paper, but when they’re married to an arrangement that sounds like it’s trying too hard, his plainly visible potential really does get wasted.
The emotional core of Stay Under The Stars is locked very firmly in the singer/songwriter tradition, trafficking largely in person-to-person emotions and direct, straight-line exchanges. Teitur is very good and knows where he is most comfortable. Terefe’s dense, overcomplicated production job mucks up an album that is just begging to have its songs left alone. It’s not a bad record, just one whose vision is never allowed to come into focus.