Album Review of Alissa Musto: What We Saw From the Piano Bar
Alissa Musto is an impressive singer, songwriter, and pianist, a rising star whose music appeals to those with tastes ranging from jazz to pop to singer-songwriter fare. I first encountered Alissa back in January, and I reviewed one of her gigs here. But that performance was tailored specifically to the space in which she was performing. An album provides an artist the opportunity to paint with a broader brush than in a venue-targeted set list, to cover more ground. While still a cohesive whole, it’s able shine a light on a performer’s talent from many angles. And, indeed, that’s what Alissa’s What We Saw From the Piano Bar does. It spotlights her singing talent – the many shades of her gravel-driven, emotional vocals. It showcases her songwriting talent – her ability to choose precisely appropriate lyrics to paint images. It highlights Alissa’s sophisticated, thoughtful approach to the album’s youthful subject matter appropriate to the college-age period during which the songs were written and recorded. And it highlights her musicianship – the ivory-tickling skills that allow her to infuse a jazz foundation into an original popular music album that should appeal to music fans while impressing musicians.
Right from the start, Alissa hits you with a tuneful melody and full, gravelly vocal passion on the attention-grabbing “Black Flak.” The emotional intensity of this song draws you in, relaxes a bit to let you breathe, and then reels you back in. And, of course, the lyrics and song title require, for those of us unaware but with a bit of intellectual curiosity, a Google search that yields the poem that inspired the lyrics. It’s the ideal album-starter, since it’s a serious, powerful song that immediately establishes Alissa’s musical street-cred, affording her the latitude to easily mix in a little more fun in some of the subsequent songs. And it’s a catchy song that’s single material, too, likely to become some listeners’ favorite.
My personal favorites rotate among at least a half of this collection, as I’ve given this disc dozens of listens, and they vary by my mood. Seemingly autobiographical, Alissa’s tunes clearly draw upon personal experiences, and like any good singer-songwriter, she delivers them with such emotion it’s hard to tell where real-life experience gives way to creative license.
Besides “Black Flak,” my other immediate favorite was “Brovada,” a swingy, swanky, attitude-filled, energetic piano bar-styled ditty that stylistically recalls for me just a hint of Piano Man-era Billy Joel. Just a hint, though. This song is all Alissa Musto. A modern combination of swagger, sophistication, and humility.
“Palace,” meanwhile, rises and falls, soaring with power and crashing like an ocean. It’s a terrific example of Alissa’s utilization of gravelly vocals to emotional effect. The subtly song-driving piano line, smooth strings (those are strings, right?), and Alissa’s engaging vocals on songs like “Palace,” though, can cause you to forget to listen to the lyrics. But, at least sometimes, try to remember to listen to the words because, whether reminiscent, thought-provoking, or something in-between, the lyrics are always worth listening to.
Though it seems like the entire album is softer paced, as the disc has a pleasant, warm feel, appropriate for an evening of contemplation in front of a roaring fire, there are ample tempo and energy changes. Following “Palace” with “Kids at the Bar” is one such energy spike. “Kids” is a fun, energetic tale of being young, ambitious… and out for a night at the bar. Though specifically written to Alissa’s own circumstance (or a creatively-adjusted version thereof), the theme should ring true across ambition, gender, and (unless you’ve given up on life altogether) age.
Other songs draw upon different influences or offer new spins on some of the same. “Pictures” has a rich vocal jazz flavor and a lyric line that engages beginning-to-end, while “Freedom” showcases some more drawn-out, richer vocals mixed in with Alissa’s immediately-identifiable gravelly voice, and it’s highlighted by such a soaring power that you’d have to be detached if you don’t simultaneously feel life’s struggles and a surge of patriotism as Alissa explores co-existing forms of “freedom” in her lyrics.
Finally, of note, the album closes with “Temporary Dreams,” another of my favorites. It’s a bit mellow in spite of its interesting keywork and emotional vocals, guiding the album down musically for a pleasant, soft landing.
In the end, it’s clear after a few (dozen) listens to What We Saw From the Piano Bar that Alissa Musto is a young performer you absolutely owe it to yourself to get to know. She has a unique mix of talent and persona, a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her stand out in a musical crowd, and I’d love to one day see her command the audience while headlining a concert hall or arena tour.
For now, though, take this opportunity discover her music, check out her latest album, and relish the ability to see her perform in the smaller, more intimate settings she’s currently playing. So yes, check her out initially because you’re curious about what the current, reigning Miss Massachusetts sounds like, if that’s what it takes to get your attention. Or because you wonder what became of New England’s homegrown America’s Most Talented Kids pianist this many years later if you caught Alissa’s age-nine TV performance “back in the day.” Really, regardless of why you give her that first listen, you’ll keep listening to this exceptional singer-songwriter-pianist.
At just the beginning of her career, I can only imagine how her sound will evolve. I am confident her songwriting and performing will evolve, as all talented, ambitious artists do throughout their careers. In any case, I look forward to enjoying hearing that evolution. And getting out to another live gig sometime soon.
If you’re in New England, be sure to find your way to one of Alissa’s performances. As noted on her website, she performs Thursdays 6:00-8:00 PM at the Renaissance Hotel Patriot Place in Foxboro, MA, Fridays 6:30-10:00 PM at Tavolo in Providence, RI, and Saturdays 8:00 PM-midnight at Jacob Wirth in Boston.
I’d also urge you to learn about Alissa’s charity, Changing Keys, which helps provide pianos to schools and community centers.