Album Review: Crystal Shawanda – Dawn of a New Day

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Mix together a batch of material written by the songwriting community’s most successful writers, add in a dash of slick, radio-friendly production, and stir until the sound is smooth; this is the recipe for the typical mainstream album, one which generally yields a heaping helping of bland and indistinct music that tastes (and sounds) the same every time.

Dawn of a New Day, which features songs written by 29 people not named Crystal Shawanda (Aimee Mayo, Hillary Lindsey and John Rich among them), follows this recipe to the letter, tapping perpetual over-producer Scott Hendricks to helm the project.

But somehow the 27 year-old singer’s debut album shines in spite of itself, a satisfying concoction that blends Shawanda’s bluesy vocal stylings with a series of warm, contemporary arrangements. It may not be the most healthy food in the kitchen, sprinkled with enough confection to appeal to the palates of the masses, but this sweet treat has just enough spice to keep things interesting.

Typically straightforward and steeped in formulaic content and structure, Dawn of a New Day does not provide much in the way of artistic revelation. Debut single “You Can Let Go” follows the singer, in typical modern story-song progression, through the stages of her father’s life up until his death; the title track is a ‘leavin’ home’ number about hopefulness in the face of fear; and the Brad and Brent Warren co-penned “You Can’t Take It Back” is generally aimless–a song about the silver linings found in life’s mistakes–that strives for poignancy but stumbles over its own rushed storyline and halfhearted payoff.

On paper it all seems like a rote exercise in mediocrity. So it’s amazing that the album, in actuality, is heartily engaging.

There’s something special about the growl in Shawanda’s raspy voice. The antithesis of so many contemporary singers who allow a given song dictate their performance, focusing more on melody and technical delivery than on interpretation, Shawanda sculpts each song into her own vision, her gritty voice like a woodworker’s sandpaper that she uses to turn an ordinary slab of timber into something magnificent.

It is this fact which renders each song on Dawn of a New Day, even those which strictly adhere to an accepted formula, unique. Her voice roars with frustration on “Baby You’re Back” and purrs with passion on “Tender Side,” decent songs that are transformed in the singer’s hands.

Likewise, “You Can Let Go,” offered by any one of the genre’s capable but silky smooth-voiced blonde bombshells, simply wouldn’t carry the same emotional weight as when delivered by Shawanda, her voice vulnerable and often seemingly on the verge of breaking (though it never does). Even when the songs on this album are not particularly compelling, the singer, her voice bathed in nuance, is.

And despite the album’s shortcomings, not the least of which is its obsession with tempo (there is only one true ballad on the record), Dawn of a New Day’s bright spots far outweigh the dim. “My Roots Are Showing” is a brilliant piece of writing that blasts out a rally-cry of singalong hook, but which also finds the singer, dressed down and feeling unglamorous, forcefully declaring that she’s beautiful no matter what she’s wearing–it’s a similar message to that which can be found in a number of recent releases, but here it is delivered in a language that is powerful instead of pandering, a perfect melding of hook and message.

Shawanda bills herself as a songwriter, but she had a hand in writing only three of the tracks featured on her debut. Still, this eleven song collection feels autobiographic, and the singer’s impassioned performances bring the stories to life as if she’s lived–and written them–them herself.

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