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  • Jonathan Widran


Off to an auspicious start, when Wisconsin born, LA based Americana singer-songwriter Hannah Connolly released her 2020 debut album From Where You Are, her heartfelt, emotional songs and rangy, infectiously soulful voice earned instant critical acclaim. She scored high praise and features galore in such genre (or genre adjacent) publications as American Songwriter, The Bluegrass Situation, The Alternate Root, Twangville, Lonesome Highway and No Depression and organizations such as Folk Alliance International and The Americana Music Association.

In part, the success of that project was due to the gently lilting, deeply introspective songs that she and her producer Jordan Ruiz created in part reflecting on a great tragedy in Hannah’s life – the loss of her younger brother Cullen, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2015. From Where You Are even included the minute long, instrumental interlude piece “Cullen Bay,” a direct tribute to her late sibling featuring bagpipes.

With the release of her highly anticipated follow-up collection Shadowboxing, Hannah keeps the clever phrases, pointed and poetic insight and sweet tenderness flowing while showcasing her more expansive artistry – in particular, her ability to rock out passionately. She bridged the gap between projects perfectly by releasing an engaging, blues-tinged re-imagining of Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” which also boosted her profile as an indie artist with nearly 1.3M streams on Spotify.

To make sure we’re paying close attention to this edgier side of her musical persona even before we embrace the multi-faceted totality of Shadowboxing, the week before dropping the album Hannah released the modern digital equivalent of a two-sided lead single, “Tired of Trying” along with “Stuck in Place.” She makes the point quickly with “Tired…,” roaring with the title in the first line before the tense, fiery instrumentation kicks in. With lines like “The sun is rising, the worst is over,” one might be inclined to think she’s feeling a bit optimistic, but overall it’s an unapologetic, delightfully pissed off rocker that Hannah herself calls “the angriest song on the album. . .my ‘at the end of your rope song.’”

Because “Stuck in Place” showcases the dreamier, more ethereal side of her voice and about living in the moment at least “til the pieces fit,” it's not in quite the same category, but its funky beat and lite rock edges still make it a different sonic experience from her first album. With these two anchor songs, it’s like she’s sharing her reality that day to day life is still a tough challenge, but if she takes the occasional deep breath, she can make it through – something we can all surely relate to.

Once Hannah has us on board with the “two sided single,” it’s easy to get drawn into the other eight gems that populate Shadowboxing, starting with another rock-tinged romp, the bustling, percussion and steel guitar driven “Golden” – a reflection on the reality that when we look for answers inside ourselves, they may not always be perfect but they put us on the right path.  The set opens with decidedly sweeter and more charming long distance romance “Reno” (which evolves with a soft rock backbeat) and wraps – sort of - with the lilting and cinematic-nostalgic glow of love song “Party Is Over,” which matches the sweet upper registers of Hannah’s voice with trippy percussion patterns and loops on a vintage Optigan, a 70’s toy organ from Mattel that was part of the arsenal at Jon O’Brien’s studio in Idyllwild, CA high in the San Jacinto Mountains. Needless to say, the location had a powerful influence on the recording experience.

Notice we say “wraps with” the track that is not the actual final song. That’s because the actual track at the end of Shadowboxing, the stark acoustic guitar and strings driven ballad “Rushing By,” is a holdover from the sessions for From Where You Are, where Cullen’s untimely passing was at the forefront of her and Ruiz’s minds as a source of inspiration. It’s an exquisite ballad, written for and about Hannah’s parents and the love they share that helped (and still helps) them endure through the heartache of losing their son. While Hannah presents a whole new side of her creative personality on the album, this one serves as a reminder of where her emotional and musical journey began.

Listeners seeking escape from some of the heavier themes on the album should jump to “Bags are Packed,” a plucky, lighthearted gem (featuring one of Hannah’s most ethereal vocals) about running off to explore nature with friends and staying up all night with them. Another favorite is the intriguing title track, a deeply percussive, steel guitar twanged meditation whose theme is ambiguous – even to its writers. As Hannah explain, “It’s a hidden reminder for me to allow magic into the process and leave space for things to be discovered along the way.” Another essential track is a mystical and hypnotic attempt to reframe a relationship as a special matching of souls, inspired by a key line about earthly disguises masking spiritual connections from the classic film What Dreams May Come starring the late Robin Williams.  


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