Janas Hoyt sings like she can hold her own in a barroom tussle.
Shea Seger: a new twist on ambient-soul music.

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Monday April. 23, 2001

The Southern Sounds of Shea Seger & Janas Hoyt

Two radically different approaches result in music that matters

By Michael Goldberg

Texan Shea Seger says her favorite album is the late Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, so it probably makes sense that she moved to London and recorded a debut album that mixes Southern soul with British trip-hop beats. You could cheat and call her an American Beth Orton, only her music doesn't really sound anything like Beth Orton's.

With Dido Armstrong's No Angel sitting at #9 in the Billboard 200 albums chart, I'm sure we'll see plenty more pairings of British ambient-pop meisters and pretty girls with soulful (but not too soulful) voices. If they're as good as Shea Seger, I won't mind.

Seger's debut, The Mary Street Project (RCA Records), won't be released in the U. S. until June 5th. Meanwhile, in England, where the album is already out, the press has gone bananas over Seger. The PR package I got includes articles in the UK version of Esquire, Q and Arena,; in the U.S. Details, Interview and CMJ Music Monthly are planning to run features.

An Ambient-Folk Sound

All that can, naturally, backfire. I think, however, if people just hear The Mary Street Project, they'll dig it mightily. Check out the beautiful duet "Always," with Ron Sexsmith. On paper, the lyrics — the chorus goes, "I just want to love/ And be loved/ Always" — look like a greeting-card cliché. It's just that when you hear the two of them sing those words together, you kinda melt. Or the lovely ambient-folk song "Blind Situation," with its out-of-left-field hip-hop breakdown and the chorus in which Seger asks, "Should I should I should I should I should I lie?"

At times, on the album opener, "Last Time" and "Twisted (Never Again)," Seger sounds kinda like Alanis Morissette. Well, she sounds like Alanis did on her debut. Seger's voice is treated so there's a bit of distortion, and she's dissing guys who did her wrong: "You're twisted, so twisted/ And I never want to see you again."

Seger is just 20 years old. Born in Fort Worth, she grew up in the small town of Quitman (pop. 1200), Texas. According to her bio, her "mother is an artist and her father is a disabled Vietnam war veteran. " Seger grew up listening to his massive music collection that included records by Janis Joplin, Nat King Cole, Pink Floyd and Curtis Mayfield. She also began playing piano at 2.

She made her album with the British producer Martin Terefe, and clearly he helped her find a sound that feels very right-now, and yet deep and soulful and poetic. The final track, "May Street," sounds like an hallucination set to music.

Another Kinda Southern Sound

Janas Hoyt, who leads the Mary Janes, isn't in a bunch of English magazines being touted as the flavor of the moment. She's not on a major label. From what I can tell, almost no one has heard of her, nor the wonderful Mary Janes album, Flame, she made with her musical partner, viola/violin player Kathy Kolata, and some other musicians who helped out.

Flame, released on Flat Earth Records, is a wonderful alterna-country album, and Hoyt sings like she can hold her own in a barroom tussle. In her songs, she sometimes offers advice, sometimes inspiration. "Are you looking for an answer/ Do you hope for a sign," she sings in "Be Careful." "...When taking is easy don't mean taking is right/ Are you taking what you're giving."

Hoyt wrote all of the songs on Flame with the exception of a powerful version of Tom Petty's "Free Girl Now," which feels like Hoyt's theme song. Hoyt produced the album, and more than half the album was recorded at Hoyt's house. The rest were cut at what sounds like a down-home, low-cost studio: Farm Fresh.

I'm not trying to say that Seger's album isn't as good as Hoyt's, or that there's something wrong with Seger's approach and right about Hoyt's. Rather, they've taken different roads, probably out of necessity. And in both cases, the result is exceptional music.

I've been listening, off and on for weeks now, to Flame, and it has grown on me. It's one of my favorite albums of 2001 so far. I've only had The May Street Project for a few days now, and though I've given it quite a listen, I won't know for a time if it has real staying power. I have the feeling it does.

Both singers' music makes me feel good when I listen to it. Sometimes, that's enough.

Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.