Just released a few days ago, Guidance is the full-length debut by New Englander, singer/songwriter, Ian Steinberg. Generally categorized in the indie-folk genre, Guidance also incorporates elements of traditional folk and folk-rock. After being classically trained for six years on the piano, Steinberg discovered a love for the guitar and folk music which opened a gate for him to begin writing sing-alongs and storytelling numbers. According to a statement about the album, its main theme centers on mental health taking an “honest and revealing reflection” about how struggling issues of the mind can take their toll. Steinberg tells his story of “a descent into and rise out of depression following the themes of manhood, love, self-worth and family.” Musically speaking, his songs are “filled with dynamic guitar, sweet melodies and powerful arrangements.” Steinberg covers all the bases with his debut: writing, producing, recording and mixing as well as playing all the instruments, with the exceptions of drums (by Isaac Silber), cello and violin.
“Bad Luck” begins with a rousing folksy beat, with claps, a warm bass, added electric guitar fills and the acoustic laying down the main rhythm. Reading the lyrics before listening, Steinberg’s words read something like Jack Kerouac beat rhyming his words to cool San Francisco jazz. “Here nor There” has a sort of old school ‘70s folk style, akin to Harry Chapin or Joni Mitchell. Steinberg’s lyrics asks the big “why” question about his own mental health on this tune – “Why, why can’t I ever be here / Nor there, nor anywhere / But in my skull, in my thoughts / In my curdled sense of self perception / Why oh why can’t I ever be here.” “Honey Won’t You Come Back Home” offers a sweet and tender message with just the singer, his guitar and backing vocals. “Pieces…Pieces…” is the first of a few instrumental tracks and this one didn’t fail to make me wonder how Steinberg created the sounds I heard. It was also one of his most chillingly imaginative songs, in my opinion.
“Buried with My Love” reminded me of something from Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, perhaps it was the tempo and/or melody. If you follow the melody closely and notice how Steinberg repeats many of the same words, it would be interesting to see if this song would format well into one of those “songs-in-the-round” – where one side of a group of singers starts singing first and then the second group starts in after, until both groups end the song in unison. It’s kind of hard to explain, unless you’ve experience it. Moving on to “And Now…” which offers a faster rhythm and some rather brutally honest words – “The truth will set you free / But only once it’s done with you / That spider it will breathe / In wait to snatch it up from you.” Steinberg seems to realize just how deep and vengeful his mental health struggles really could get or did get.
The instrument arrangements and rhythms on “How Can Our Fathers” reminded me of something from The Band – one of the most underrated folk-rock bands in American music. The words here suggest a father who was around for the birth of their son or daughter, but then just left town afterwards, never to return. “Stuck Inside the Water Basin” is another instrumental and it begins with the sound of footsteps walking on the ground and continues throughout the tune into the next. A few moments later, a tender and soulful acoustic with just the right effect comes in and then transitions to “Poppy’s Last Message” – a phone recorded last word to Steinberg, wishing him a happy birthday. By the way, Guidance is dedicated to Steinberg’s grandfather Elliott Steinberg known to him as “Poppy.” The album is also dedicated to Eli Todd.
The title track to the album is written with humble vulnerability – serious pleas to a stranger, a mother and a lover – Steinberg asks how to avoid from falling apart and to “point me towards the northern star.” The melody is comparatively happier to the words, with a lighter, skipping beat following along. “One Foot One Knee” is perhaps Steinberg’s most simple song, in terms of the words he used. Basically, it’s a song about perseverance and doing what it takes to get back to the place where one can feel whole again and be at home. It’s very gospel like, filled with soulful backing vocals sung by the Nohomie Choir. “Fatima” takes an excerpt from the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Steinberg narrates Coelho’s beloved words about the universal “language of love” as he strums gentle guitar chords.
“At the Risk of Coming Off as Trite” features some great textured sounds – guitars, mandolin and backing vocals – inside a fun, gentle melody that has a children’s story rhyme/Raffi quality to it. The last number is “Sunshine” and indeed, it shines with words of hope and determination. Two extra instruments can he heard here – Dani Hill playing the cello and Jens Hybertson on violin, add their own beautiful marks. The pace of the tempo at the end was a nice surprise, too. Overall, a nice, succinct way to end the album, reminding us listeners to give thanks for another day of living.
By and large, Ian Steinberg’s songwriting and talent as a multi-instrumentalist on Guidance comes off as genuine. I thought the album was thoughtfully produced and recorded and it addressed the struggles of mental health issues that many people have in a deeply intimate way.
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