In the iconic 1976 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Rocky, the lead character prevails in the face of adversity and simultaneously becomes an icon for the eternal underdog. Rocky Balboa faced impossible odds proving it's never too late in one's life to take charge and defy the naysayers. Ironically, there's a band from the city of Brotherly Love who is reminiscent of the fictional hometown hero; Soraia, a five piece rock band who has risen like a phoenix from personal calamities only to turn their tragedy into triumph. We live in a day and age of exhaustive overexposure of music where the end product often does not live up to the hype. In the MySpace generation it's hard to find artists who make thematically connected albums that speak volumes. An illustrious album has a collection of songs that provides you with an engaged experience between the artist and your psyche. This rarely happens anymore. However, just recently, I was sent an album that proved to be not just invigorating but whose songs collectively were unyielding, gut wrenching and gloriously elegiac. Soraia's Shed the Skin delivers a broad stream of influences which cajole an earnest reaction that leaves you yearning for more after just one listen.
There are dozens of acts today who create divinely delicious melodies but what makes Soraia stand out from the rest is lead singer Sue Mansour. Mansour was a school teacher whose true passion was music and through her unbridled passion and perseverance, convinced Bon Jovi engineer Obie O'Brien to helm their debut album, Shed the Skin. Obie has made a career of making sure Bon Jovi concerts, albums and demos are as seductive as they are sincere. O'Brien took the no-nonsense approach to Soraia where the end result is nine all-killer no-filler transporting blissful meditations filled with golden harmonies, funkadelic riffs and spiritual soul bearing lyrics.
As Mansour belts out the title track, her voice crows with an immediate and defiant pulse which is nothing short of pulverizing. Her vocal styling's are a throwback to the past but what's integral is that she is well aware of the rich tradition of singers who have come before her as she reaches back further than just one decade but five decades to the inner workings of Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett before recording her dynamic, soulful and mesmerizing vocals. The sexual aura is prevalent as the lyrics effortlessly slip off her tongue on the song "Long Time", a divinely palatable executed sexual plea. If you were to close your eyes while listening to this song, you'd be taken back to the time of Cream, Jefferson Starship and Janis Joplin where the image didn't evoke sexuality but a voice on vinyl could. There's the wistful cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene", heavily influenced by the White Stripes' version on their Live Under Blackpool Lights DVD further signifying the Soraia's unique and diverse styles. It is more of a sophisticated homage to both the Stripes and Parton versions with Mansour's vocals conveying an unexpected searing intensity.
Mansour sought out long-time Bon Jovi engineer Obie O'Brien who offered the advice to not quit her day job, but she persisted in enticing him with enough vigor and passion that he eventually agreed to help produce Soraia. What he thought would be a one-time favor proved to be a labor of love and the grandiose sonic virtuosity shines through. O'Brien even has Richie Sambora, Lorenza Ponce, Bobby Bandiera, John Shanks and Jeff Kazee all make appearances on the album. Besides guiding Mansour, O'Brien ensures that Soraia's other members (guitarist Dave Justo, bassist Travis Smith, drummer Joe Armstrong and rhythm guitarist Joe Diablo) leave their distinctive imprint on the record coloring in the corners and birthing these songs to life. It's unlikely you'll hear any album in the next year whose rock and soul architecture sounds this fresh. It's no nonsense approach to recording is a refreshing jolt to the system where many indie bands underwhelm and multiplatinum artists overcompensate. The ocular nature of the recording is spot on, bridging a musical marriage between style and subtleness.
Shed the Skin is a cohesive collection of songs and warrants an in depth listen that is ambitious and affecting without being overly sentimental. Soraia are not hopping on any bandwagons, they merely check vintage classic rock riffs and find a way to swathe them into a package that is intoxicating and enthralling. There is a profound depth to the lyrics which are enhanced by the layered roars of guitars that make you yearn for a time where albums and artists ruled the landscape. The entire album yields a windfall of truthfulness that carefully wields soul-searching lyrics that ring true. "Had Enough", my favorite track on the album, showcases the will to survive with a defiant full-throated vocal performance by Monsour. "Damn Dirty Woman" is stripped and thorny in a clawing, languid, gorgeous and sedate arrangement. The titillating voodoo mysticism of "Little Cat" provides the listener with an unforgettable sensory experience while the sixties flavored mysticism of "Home" finds a love that defies carnal reasoning with accentuation on the mental stimulation. "Long Time" best represents the visceral lyrics of lost bluesmen, which is enhanced by her "soul of the 60s" evoking voice reminiscent of Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Ann Wilson. Closing the record out is "Need", a distortion-orchestra of convincing thunderous pinpoint precision. However, what makes this record so profound is the raw intensity of the soulful lyrics which put you right in the emotional thick of the action. While it connects American musical traditions, it's sonically and implausibly fresh. Producer Obie O'Brien's instinctive, enlivening and revitalizing production does the material justice and significantly brightens the album to A-grade levels, but always keeping the vibe organic and elegiac. As impressive as the sonic framework may be, the real star is Mansour's cooing vocals paired with the elliptical lyrics which combined make Shed The Skin a harrowing, endearing and essential album.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer whose daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor (AT) gmail (DOT) com.