How many Maine albums has Sara Hallie Richardson sung guest vocals on in the past two years? I don’t have an exact count, but I would imagine it is close to ten, if not more, on albums from artists as varied in genre as the r&b-indie rock of KGFREEZE and the jazz-funk trio Micromasse. Richardson, a Knox County native, is the go-to singer for a huge swath of the Portland music scene. If you want some gorgeous female vocals on your band’s album, you call her up.
With her third proper album, “Phoenix,” Richardson proves once again, however, that she’s more than just a pretty voice. As with her previous album, “Restless,” “Phoenix” is packed with icy, crisp, expressive pop, among the most perfectly-produced Maine releases of this year or any other. “Phoenix” is the work of a professional, which is exactly what Richardson is. Probably why everyone wants to work with her, right?
As a songwriter, Richardson often falls into an often unfairly maligned category: the confessional songwriter, putting her feelings and relationships into her lyrics and then breathing brilliant life into them. In the late 1990s, Richardson would have been right at home with Sarah McLachlan, Beth Orton and the countless other female singer-songwriters that populated the Lilith Fair. Today, she falls somewhere on the spectrum between the pop sensibility of Sara Bareilles and the edgier indie rock of Feist. Accessible, but intelligent.
As with her previous albums, “Phoenix” is full of layers and layers of careful, exceptionally attractive sonic landscapes — from the striking string arrangements by co-producer Sean Morin on the title track courtesy of the Amarantos Quartet, to the percussive handclaps and samples on album closer “Reprise.” On “If You Asked Me” she uses vocal samples and alterations to great, unearthly effect. There’s some welcome dissonance on songs like “Green Gables,” which features some rumbling, Reznor-esque piano lines. This is a beautiful-sounding album, no doubt about it.
Richardson, when singing on her own songs, falls vocally somewhere in between the achingly intimate soprano of Joni Mitchell and the bold, singular vision of Bjork or Kate Bush. Would that Richardson would embrace more of the aural boundary-pushing and lyrical wit and bite those artists are known for, and push that wondrous, multi-octave instrument and songwriting voice further, beyond the silky, crystalline, accessible pop most of the songs on “Phoenix” tread in. She’s got it in her. I know she does. Half the musicians in Portland can’t be wrong.
“Phoenix” is available to buy on iTunes and at Bull Moose Music stores, as well as streaming online at sarahallierichardson.com.