The third album is usually pivotal and represents a transformative moment in a songwriter’s career. More often than not, the third album represents the artistic peak of a career and what follows is an inevitable slide into musical and cultural irrelevance of varying degrees. There are exceptions. Some bands and artists never hit a peak, per se, but instead find their stride. The distinction is crucial. Rather than having one particular recorded moment when everything comes together for the artists in a way that they never repeat in quite the same way, the artists who find a stride turn that peak into a string of discography-defining albums. The ten songs on Stefanie Keys’ third release Open Road offer plenty of evidence that moment has come for this fine songwriter and musician.
She starts things off confidently with the title song. There is a wealth of familiar imagery through the title cut, but it never sounds overly familiar. Instead, Keys imbues these familiar lyrical qualities with her own particular brand of verve. There is a great balance of the retro feel we all expect from Keys’ music and a modern presentation with considerable rock and roll bite. The positive message of self-empowerment at the heart of “No Tomorrow” benefits from a superb musical treatment and an immensely charismatic vocal from Keys. The lyrics are full of personal moments but simply-put wisdom that never smacks of pretension. “Sleeping Lady” is one of Open Road’s most delicate moments and an expertly played acoustic track with a Keys vocal that never strains for meaning. Her phrasing gives it a light air of breathiness that many listeners will find atmosphere or evocative.
“City Life” has a lot of atmospherics to spare and they are never overstated. The bluesy air surrounding the song conjures up visions of late nights with Keys’ voice providing much of the song’s theatrics. The musical performances are uniformly well-tuned and there’s no overreaching here in an attempt to garner attention from the listener at the expense of the song. “Cold Day” finds Keys and her band tackling some socially aware material, but it never gets too preachy and instead concentrates on storytelling virtues that help make the song memorable. The musical arrangement, as well, resists the temptation for self-indulgence but remains hard-hitting and intimately recorded throughout. Keys’ treated vocals don’t compromise the song, but the addition of effects feels a little pointless when you have such a first class singer capable of conveying worlds worth of emotion in a single line.
“Amos Crain” is easily the album’s most literary moment. Let’s not get confused and assume Keys’ lyrics qualify as poetry, but she does turn in a real stunner here that does an exceptional job of defining character for its listeners. Her musical collaborators wisely step back a little here and the instrumental presence is clearly much more a vehicle for Keys’ musings than what it is on earlier tracks. The ghostly touch of organ returns again on the album’s final cut “9 O’Clock”, but the real story with this song is the patience Keys and her musical partners show in developing this richly deserving finale. It ends Open Road on just the right note musically and lyrically.