Long Island, New York native Karen Littman has been writing songs since childhood, but her debut release The Dream of Life: Set Yourself Free arrives much later in life than we’re accustomed to from emerging performers. The sixteen track release is helmed by producer Joel Jaffe and may seem like an inordinately long release, but there honestly isn’t a single instance of filler present on this collection. It reminds me, in a certain way, of George Harrison’s creative outpouring following his departure from The Beatles that resulted in the seminal release All Things Must Pass – these are the songs of a lifetime and Littman clearly comes out of this album as a major singer/songwriter with something substantive to say. The heavy hitters she’s drafted to assist with the production and playing on this album makes it an even more immersive musical experience.
Piano is an important musical element in the success of this album and that fact is self-evident based on the opener alone. “Where Is Home?” has a piano melody that sets the early mood of the song and its self-exploratory air benefits enormously from a warm Littman vocal and a rich sound. The light quasi-classical orchestration accompanying “Lost and Found of Life” incorporates fiddle into the mix and she does an excellent job threading Americana/bluegrass influences into the music without them ever slotting the song into a niche genre category. The vocal melody is among the album’s best and Littman fully exploits its potential. The percolating rhythms of “Living in Another Dimension” have a plethora of rich vocal harmonies and nice energy gives a different flavor than the earlier songs. It has a powerful, yet lean and commercially minded lyric that’s an ideal fit for the song.
“Who Am I?” is quite different than the songs that have come before it and Littman clearly opts for a much artier approach than the previous tunes. Some may struggle with this track in light of what has come before and new touches like the post production effects applied to Littman’s beautiful voice, but it shows her capacity for satisfying surprise if nothing else. The probing nature of her lyrics reaches one of its peaks on the album with the song “Choosing Love or Fear” and she delivers it in a superb, striding light rock arrangement that gives her vocal something to sink its teeth into. The quasi-orchestrated quality returns with the song “What’s It Like on the Other Side?”, but Littman sustains this approach during the introduction before transitioning into a sweet, nearly pastoral musical vision that rates among the album’s best moments. The unexpectedly playful “Perfection is Not My Friend” has a gently revolving musical feel that Littman locks into with tremendous ease.
“Set Yourself Free” has a rather magisterial way of unfolding with its lush musical texture and larger than life production values. Despite the rather sedate instruments used for the song, this performance comes across with genuine presence and the massed vocal harmonies are quite effective. The album’s title cut is also its penultimate tune and definitely occupies a position as one of the album’s most studied, elegant, yet highly emotive moments. It’s musically built around understated synthesizer, piano, and vocals. This is deeply thoughtful and musically, never tests the listener’s credibility and plays with both a generous and serious minded spirit.