It has been a busy three years for Stretch between his debut album and this follow-up sophomore album Our Dreams are Changing. There has been a lot of time on the road with his solo gigs and appearances opening for the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Julia and Angus Stone and Damien Rice. And a lot of personal upheavals too with losses in the family and shifting his base to Napier, Hawke's Bay. This hefty water under the bridge has shaped this album, due out 1 October on Bandcamp.
The first track “Last Call for the Road” opens with the familiar Stretch territory. That dark expressive voice and the immediacy of his acoustic guitar sound. Here is soft emotive ballad-singing that we hear opening his live gigs and on his debut album in 2017, Bury All Horses.
New to the Horses set up is the recent partnership with cellist Paula Sugden. Playing a 300-year old cello, Sugden has added depth and interest to Stretch’s gigging including the opening set for Elton John last year. So I am interested to hear how the partnership plays out in the studio mix of Auckland’s Lab Studios with experienced production led by Wayne Bell.
After an acoustic start, “Last Call for the Road” is a brief glimpse of the massive Hawkes Bay landscape through cello and distort, even more of this breaking open would have been interesting to explore. Guitar and vocals bring the song back home again and It is a fitting welcome into the Stretch vibe.
I like the honesty of an acoustic singer-songwriter basis for the album, it keeps Stretch clearly at the front for his audience and retains his authenticity. His songwriting is not messed around under producer Wayne Bell’s respectful care. However, I do have a question mark around the sound mix at times, more soon.
“Lonely Star” has a beautiful melting vulnerability. We hear echoes of the songwriter's sojourn in a remote Hawke’s Bay bach. This is the soundtrack of some seriously blue times for the artist. Nick Drake-style beauty in the guitar and vocals that cut right to your heart - “it’s ok to be this lost, to be so far gone….”. The partnership with cello is acoustic and subtle at the start and amplifies the darkness. And this track again peeks into a larger colour palette than we heard on Stretch’s debut album.
My pick of this Hawke’s Bay crop is “Here Come the Starlings” with a folk-Americana spaciousness. It catches a new soft sustain in this artist’s vocals and represents the heart of this troubadour’s sound. The only aspect that troubles me is the rather too ‘full-frontal’ sound of the cello. So, it's the mix that I have question marks around - as achingly beautiful as string playing can be, sometimes it competes for attention. And perhaps the whole sound could have used more warmth with those great storytelling vocals even more at the front.
Another lil cherry worth picking is upbeat “Shoal Bay Song” with beautifully balanced backing vocals from one of Stretch’s whanau, Te Puawai Hunia. The guitar sound, vocals and strings are happily in harmony here. Equally successful is the pop song of the album “Hold Fast, Hold True” with great vocal hooks and a Kiwi roots vibe.
The dark depth of “House Full of Ghosts” and the emotive bowing of Sugden’s cello really works here. Production values and clattering percussive touches add much to the unsettling nature of Stretch’s questioning and the dark lament of his vocals. There is bite too in "I Know You've Been Bad" with stabbing cello and band taking hold of the bittersweet energy. It's track brave enough to finish unresolved ... cos things are like that, sometimes.
The final haere ra for the album is the last song “The Turning”. This is Stretch’s doorway into album three in my humble opinion. Soundscapes and vocal colours that beg to be explored as he stretches (scuse pun, but it’s gotta be done) into the space granted by the larger landscape of his home since his last album, the Bay of Plenty, or more rightfully named Te-Moana-a-Toi.
Our Dreams are Changing follows up Stretch’s debut album with even more satisfying song-writing. That is more than enough to earmark Stretch as one of Aotearoa’s most beloved and hardworking travelling singer-songwriters. But above and beyond the call, here we have a braver vulnerability and stepping into bolder colours. And to quote one of his own songs, this album holds fast and true to honest storytelling told with Stretch’s outstanding dark-folk vocals.
Our Dreams are Changing album available 1 October on Bandcamp
Stretch - All music and lyrics, vocals, Acoustic guitar, Electric guitar, Drums
Paula Sugden - Cello
Wayne Bell - Drums, Percussion, Electric & Bass guitar, Ukulele
Olly Harmer - Piano, Hammond organ
Dan Devcich - Bass guitar
Te Puawai Hunia - Vocals
Recorded at The Lab Recording Studio, Auckland - July 2020
Engineered, Mixed, Mastered by Olly Harmer
Produced by Wayne Bell.
Our Dreams are Changing Tour details HERE