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Poised to Take Flight Becca Stevens Band: Tea Bye Sea

Becca Stevens is perhaps best known as the vocalist for Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra, the eighteen-piece jazz ensemble dedicated to exploring the work of the well-known Icelandic swan shamaness. And while the voice of Björk can be heard hovering in the background of Stevens’ first CD, Tea Bye Sea (with her band Colin Killalea, Liam Robinson, Chris Tordini, and Tommy Crane), various other forces come together to create a very singular kind of bird.

Like Björk, Stevens and her band employ an inventive texturing in the music (banjo + accordion + French horn; harp + kalimba) augmented by wordless vocalizations—sometimes almost scat-sung, sometimes melodic, sometimes purposely off-key—either echoing the instrumentation to create texture or acting like instruments themselves. Even the compelling lyrics, written by Stevens, are themselves instruments at times, creating and sustaining rhythm in their sonic interactions. For example, the bright first track, “In the Midst,” builds in intensity on sections beginning with these phrase combinations (and utilizing the French horn, played by Tommy Crane, as a foundation):

Falling snow / falling fast…

Always slow / failing fast…

Breaking ground / all I found…

We were sound / finally found…

The song resolves quietly with:

So cold like the winter that’s coming

With no you to share

It with me with no

You to share it

With me

With no

“The Riddle” begins with minimal accordion (Liam Robinson) and bass (Chris Tordini). Here the lyrics (particularly the “-er” endings) partner with the music to create a kind of sparse hardness:

If you love her run for cover

There’s nothing there to suit the suitor of her

Ah it’s true she loves another

Oh don’t cry

Just find another

Then—of all things—a glockenspiel, doubled with the harp, contributes to the building complexity in both the music and the vocals, but in a quiet, playful way. Later in the song the harp is doubled with a kalimba. (Stevens plays all three.) Then the voices—Stevens plus the rest of the band—create a layered, increasingly (and purposely) dissonant sound. Stevens’ voice takes over in a bold way that doesn’t occur that often in the other pieces, and the lyrics too make grander statements:

Each lover on their own carries with them

Some sort of riddle that you can reason with…

Love’s a work of art with more

Dimensions that your brush can fit any page

The beginning of the beautiful “Lullabye” brings to mind Sandy Denny’s lyrical flights of voice and Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in the (at first) light combination of banjo, accordion, and French horn, which later build on the acoustic guitar to work against the smoothness, finally crescendoing with soprano sax (Colin Killalea). Stevens’ voice floats over the surface, and the banjo imparts a sleepy, summertime feeling, as do the repeated words with their drawn-out “ee” sound:

Sleep away your troubles from the past

Sleep until your future’s here at last

Sleep but watch out for those nightmares that


On the equally beautiful title cut “Tea Bye Sea,” Stevens keeps her voice under gentle rein as she asserts the song’s main melodic line, when she sings:


Cooking the spoon

Elegant loon

Hurry on home come


Come two by two

I’ll set you free

Come tea bye sea

One feels that she wants to break out, but she instead uses a wordless vocalization as a steadying stream-of-consciousness line. Here only two guitars and a piano are used, leaving the layered backgrounded voices (“Set the slate for our last supper / Tea bye sea spreads bread on butter”) to create soft, barely perceptible percussion.

The intimately delivered “Deo,” featuring only Stevens on voice and guitar, works a meandering melody that dissolves into a kind of scat-singing moving in and out of logos, circling around the “o” of the title name and just approaching sense before it segues into the name and the refrain:


And fear is just an illusion

My words can never show

The depths of this confusion

So I’ll just let them go

“Fine Lines” begins with the delightful, half-spoken:

This wine is sickening sour

I left it out all night to let it breathe

It turned while I was falling fast asleep

My thoughts are thickening this hour . . .

…and a list of several things that are out of reach:

I can’t feel my head

I can’t feel my eyes

I can’t reach the doorway ’cause

The handle’s way too high

And as it’s only Stevens on guitar here, the plaints are rendered intimate and wonderfully familiar.

“Intimate and wonderfully familiar” are words that can describe BSB’s work in general. With this well-made and wholly original set of songs, Stevens’ career as a talented singer of her own melodies seems poised to take flight.

Sharon Mesmer is the author of the poetry collections Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books) and The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose Press).


Sharon Mesmer

SHARON MESMER's most recent poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008) and The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose, 2008). Fiction collections include Ma Vie a Yonago (Hachette, 2005) and In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose, 2005).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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