The ballyhoo accompanying a new promising artist, however well-meaning, often comes across as inflated. The lyrics for the seven songs on Jesse Lynn Madera’s full-length studio debut Fortunes are often quite good, but comparisons to Leonard Cohen are off the mark and do nothing but impose artificial standards for her to live up to. They likewise serve to distract listeners from fully appreciating her individuality. Madera’s songs stand on their own as impressive efforts and have no need of reflected glory to lure listeners in. It isn’t a perfect release; some songs are weaker than others. There is no question, however, that these are Jesse Lynn Madera’s songs and she does an outstanding job\ of synthesizing other influences into her musical art.
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The first track “Dante” is an excellent introduction to what Madera does particularly well. As a lyricist, she is adept at sketching out compelling characters thanks to her instinct for significant detail and a willingness to allow listeners fill whatever blanks she leaves unaddressed. There is a collaborative spirit at work over the course of this release. Madera develops these songs in such a way that it practically invites listeners to participate in the creative process of bringing them to life. She writes in such a way we are encouraged to interpret the material in the manner of our choosing.
“Sentimental” is one of two duets with guest vocalists included on this album and the weaker of the pair. This song deserved a stronger lyric for Madera to work with and, as it is, feels little more than sketched out and covers familiar territory in a familiar way. It is musically on point, however, and guest singer Joel Taylor works well with Madera – their voices are quite complementary. Stevie Blacke’s string arrangements return for the fatalistic “The Door” and Madera delivers a lyric bleeding bitterness, emotional pain, and longing with suitable dramatic skill. She never overplays her hand, however – in the hands of a lesser vocalist, this could come across as overwrought melodrama, but Madera keeps a strong grip on the song’s pathos.
“Funny Man” dispenses with Blacke’s string arrangements but incorporates some tasty organ playing courtesy of John Thomas. There’s a light layering of bitterness heard in this track as well though it never quite reaches the same pitch we hear in “The Door”. There’s no question Madera writes about failing or fraught relationships with a keen eye.
“You, With the Sullen Eyes” teams Madera with actor and musician John Hawkes, perhaps most famous for his role on the HBO series Deadwood, and this track succeeds where the earlier “Sentimental” does not thanks to two crucial factors. The first is the stark difference between Hawkes’ and Madera’s voices. Hawkes has a much deeper voice than Joel Taylor and the lows he strikes compared to Madera’s higher register explorations make for compelling listening. The second is how much stronger the lyric is – there’s a lot for the two singers to work with here and they never disappoint. It’s arguably the album’s best lyric. Fortunes would be an even more memorable effort if Madera varied the tempos more, but Fortunes will stand for some time to come as one of the most individual releases coming from a talented young writer and performer in some time.